MOSCOW (Sputnik) Tommy Yang – China’s Cyberspace Administration announced on Friday that a criminal investigation has been launched against Chinese social media services including Sina’s Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat and Baidu’s Tieba, on suspicion of violating the Cybersecurity Law, which went into effect on June 1.
In addition to completely blocking major international social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Chinese authorities have always maintained stringent control on domestic service providers including Weibo, WeChat and Tieba. These Chinese companies have been forced to invest heavily in establishing an expansive content filtering system that tries to delete all kinds of information deemed as "harmful" for the public, including violence, pornography and politically sensitive content.
THREAT OF PRISON SENTENCE
"Chinese authorities have direct control over the domestic internet companies. It’s easy for them to issue warnings to them. But this time, it’s a new situation when they want to use this law against those companies. This is the first time the new law is being used. It’s a new method for authorities to control the internet," Zhan Jiang, a professor of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Sputnik.
Zhan added that it remains to be seen if the Chinese companies involved would face a lawsuit brought by the prosecutor’s office.
The Beijing-based expert believes that utilizing the new Cybersecurity Law means that staff at the Chinese companies could face criminal charges or even prison sentences in case they fail to comply with requirements from authorities.
"You can’t rule out the possibility that the person responsible for enforcing the censorship may face criminal charges or prison sentence. This is unprecedented," he said.
The journalism professor explained that, from the perspective of Chinese authorities, they only pay attention to the result of the censorship, which is to make sure nothing negative about the government comes out ahead of the major political meeting later this year.
NOT DOING ENOUGH
To meet censorship requirements from Chinese authorities, domestic social media services including Weibo and WeChat have invested heavily in both automated filtering systems based on artificial intelligence and human censors hired to interpret more sophisticated content. Weibo, the service operated by Sina, has set up designated official accounts, such as "Weibo Administrator" and "Weibo Little Secretary," to monitor and handle reports of prohibited content on its platform.
After authorities announced the criminal investigation against Weibo, WeChat and Tieba, all of the three companies issued apologies to the public and pledged to cooperate with Chinese authorities fully. Weibo even went as far as to invite a Chinese law professor to give its staff a lecture on the new Cybersecurity Law.
"The Cybersecurity Law has relevant regulations on the content security of the internet. The service providers have failed to fulfill their legal responsibilities, as they continue to allow harmful information such as false rumors and pornographic content to exist on their platforms," Zhu Wei, vice-chair of the Internet Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and an adviser to the Cyberspace Administration, said.
Zhu added that Chinese social media services need to step up their efforts in enforcing the real-name registration system which allows authorities to quickly identify the person spreading unlawful information online.
"Sometimes, when we identify a post with illegal information, we still can’t connect it to a person because the account holder’s identity has not been verified. We need to enforce real-name registration strictly," he said.
The law professor suggested that Chinese social media services also need to do a better job of responding to reports from the public on illicit information.
"Some articles posted on social media are obviously misguiding or slandering towards others. After someone reported such stories to the service providers, they have no response. Sometimes, they ignore such reports on purpose to use these posts to boost traffic to their platforms and increase advertising revenues," Zhu said.
Zhu argued that the western method of letting the public defeat false rumors on social media does not work in China, because mobile devices are so widely adopted among Chinese users that any false information can spread among the public too quickly before it can be contained and vetted as untrue.
IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTROL
Facing challenges in maintaining control in the age of social media, Chinese authorities have tried to take the lead in shaping public opinion by setting up a large number of verified social media accounts to express the official point of view on various issues.
"Everything goes viral so fast on social media. I don’t think spending money to hire people to censor content would be successful. On social media, you’ll always find people with various kinds of opinions. When you go on Weibo, WeChat or Baidu, you don’t see that there’s only one single view," Patrick Poon, a China researcher with Amnesty International in Hong Kong, told Sputnik.
Unlike old times when there were only the official publications and media platforms, social media has offered ordinary people a chance to express their opinions, the Hong Kong-based rights advocate argued.
"There’s no way public opinion can be controlled in the same way. Their understanding of social media is quite ridiculous. If they think they can control social media, it means they don’t understand social media," Poon said.
Poon suggested that censorship on Chinese social media services will continue to be a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and witty ordinary internet users, who are good at finding alternative terms to express their opinions.