The Chinese Communist Party ("CCP"), already infamous for its deep censorship of internet in the People’s Republic, seems to be squeezing the web’s net even tighter.
Since coming to power, President Xi Jinping has consolidated internet regulatory agencies into a new, streamlined entity: the State Internet Information Office (SIIO). According to noted China specialist Bill Bishop, the SIIO is “now clearly the lead Internet regulatory body” in China. Additionally, on February 27th, President Xi instituted a new leading group on “Internet Security and Informatization.” He chairs this himself, showing a significant level of interest in making sure the government’s organs are capable of censoring over 600 million internet users. Many Chinese officials have benefitted from this bureaucratic arrangement---though none more so than Lu Wei (鲁炜), who in his roles as the head of the SIIO, the Vice Minister for Propaganda, and the office head of the Leading Group on Internet Security and Informatization is now the top internet regulator in China. Until 2013, he was a local, albeit relatively powerful, Chinese Communist Party official in Beijing. Since then, Lu has surged.
Under Lu’s leadership, over the past month and a half, the SIIO has been relentlessly expanding its regulatory domain. The most notable example: little-reported regulations issued by the SIIO on August 7th, which have come to be known as the “WeChat articles.” The articles, which bear the official title of “Provisional Regulations for the Development and Management of Instant Messaging Tools and Public Information Services,” increase the SIIO’s power to regulate WeChat and other instant messaging media.
The move has a clear purpose in mind. In the past few years, WeChat and other instant messaging media, until recently lightly-regulated, have filled a niche left by older, more heavily-regulated microblogging platforms, such as Sina Weibo. (Lu Wei himself is widely believed to be responsible for China’s 2013 repression of “Big V” users on the microblogging site.). WeChat has turned into an important “citizen journalist” and “social organization” platform, primarily because of the 2012 reform that allowed its users to have public accounts capable of creating and sharing text, video, and circles of subscribers. That’s butted up against a primary, if unstated, goal of Chinese officialdom---to curtail online social mobilization and collective action regardless of content, whether critical of the government or not. For this reason, what WeChat’s 438 million active monthly users say, share, and read is of supreme interest to the CCP---and to the SIIO.
The “WeChat articles” impose strict rules. China File provides a thorough overview of them, including one requirement that users of instant messaging platforms authenticate their identities before registering, and another requiring that articles commenting on current events only be published by authorized news media websites or groups or individuals who have obtained “internet news service qualifications.” Thus it seems anonymity is effectively banned on all instant messaging platforms, and if you want to opine on current events, the law requires explicit, prior authorization to do so from the government. In all cases, the providers of instant messaging are responsible for interpreting and enforcing the regulations at the CCP’s behest.
All this significantly restricts open instant messaging, and in two interconnected ways. First, the articles are intentionally kept vague and ambiguous, thus allowing for ample enforcement discretion. What counts as legally sufficient “internet news service qualifications?” And what constrains the government in seeking to “examine and verify” those qualifications? Second and more generally, the imposition of this and related requirements helps to stifle online expression, and accordingly favors traditional media sources beholden to the government. The scheme is having an impact. As of August 25th, Reuters reported that Tencent Holdings suspended more than 300 accounts on WeChat and banned around 40 others in light of the regulations.
The SIIO has made another important move to restrict online freedom beyond the “WeChat articles.” The government policy in question can be found in Mandarin here, and is titled, “Notice of the State Council Regarding the Authorization of the SIIO to be Responsible for the Management of Information Content on the Internet.” A state media report from China News had the following to say about the notice:
The State Council on August 26th published “Notice of Authorization of the SIIO to be Responsible for the Management of Information Content on the Internet” in order to spur the healthy and orderly development of internet information services and to protect citizens, corporations, and other organizations’ lawful rights and benefits. It is also meant to safeguard national security and the public good. It authorizes the newly-established SIIO to be responsible for managing the information content of the entire country’s internet, and to be responsible for supervising law enforcement.
The SIIO was established in May 2011. According to government reports at that time, its functions include implementing guidelines and policies concerning the dissemination of internet information and promoting the construction of a legal system for disseminating such information. It is also responsible for guiding, coordinating, and supervising relevant government ministries in reinforcing the administration of online internet content.
Currently, Lu Wei is the head of the SIIO, the Vice Minister for Propaganda, and the head of Office of the Leading Group on Internet Security and Informatization.
The significance of this new regulatory surge remains unclear. Still, this much can be said safely: the SIIO and related developments should give pause to anyone with a stake in ensuring an “open internet.”
Consider the context. A stated mission of President Xi’s Leading Group on Internet Security and Informatization is to transform China into a “cyberpower” using homegrown technologies. The inner circle of the CCP is discreet about what that might mean precisely, so far as policy goes. Nevertheless, Lu’s recent comments at the Davos Summit on September 10th provide a window into how the Chinese government’s plans relate to the internet more globally. In a panel on “The Future of the Internet Economy,” Lu called for a “multilateral, democratic, and transparent” internet, echoing descriptions of the most ardent defender of internet freedom. So far so good. Yet, towards the end of his remarks, he also analogized the internet to a car: sometimes, Lu said, it requires brakes---the official’s implication being that sound policy might require subordination of internet freedoms to legitimate national security concerns. Furthermore, Lu warned, the core necessities of the internet also had to respect local laws and customs if it wished to function well and in an orderly fashion.
Lu’s admonition comes at an interesting time: as early as 2015, US control over ICANN, the organization that oversees the root-zone file of internet domain addresses, is scheduled to end. The web has been rife with speculation as to how the group’s day-to-day administration will be impacted by the hand-off, and as to the persons or entities that might be on the hand-off’s receiving end. The United States government sees in the transition no danger to the current process of allocating domain names. But L. Gordon Crovitz at the Wall Street Journal, among others, is not convinced. In an article entitled, “The Internet Power Vacuum Worsens,” he argued that authoritarian governments are already moving in to fill the gap left by the US:
Under the current "multistakeholder" system, an advisory group of governments has only as much power as other stakeholders, such as Web registries, website owners, free-speech groups and other nonprofits. But in August, ICANN quietly proposed changing its bylaws to rubber-stamp government decisions unless two-thirds of the ICANN board objects. In turn, Iran has proposed that the government group move to majority voting from the current consensus approach. That would enable the world's majority of authoritarian governments to rewire the Internet more to their liking.
The consolidation also comes just a few months before the plenipotentiary meeting of the International Telecommunications Union in Busan, South Korea, where the PRC candidate for Secretary General of the organization, Houlin Zhao, is running unopposed. The ITU has attracted criticism in the past over allegations that authoritarian governments like Russia and the PRC, which "are widely seen as favoring inter-governmental control as a vehicle for legitimizing national measures to control their citizens," use the organization to challenge the multistakeholder structure at its sessions, the most recent of which was in Dubai.
The impact of the Chinese government’s increased regulatory power is apparent internationally in other ways; China’s new regulatory structure seems more than willing to use its growing power over China’s massive online market to pressure important internet stakeholders, such as international companies, into acquiescence. At the same Tianjin panel this September, Lu Wei pointedly said to a fellow panelist, Qualcomm Inc. President Paul Jacobs, that half of the company’s revenue comes from China, and that they “should make money together.” The comments were notable in light of the fact that Qualcomm is the target of an ongoing anti-monopoly probe by the Chinese government. Lu also sent another warning to companies doubting the CCP’s lack of resolve, vowing at the same forum that Facebook would not enter the Chinese market anytime soon. Despite reports that this crackdown is leading multinationals to ditch their PRC offices altogether and move to less-regulated areas, like Singapore, the CCP appears willing to stomach these exits.
With all this as background, the SIIO’s increased activity seems worrisome indeed.