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David Wertime

What to Make of China's New Internet Law

Chinese authorities: little emblem, big impact

Chinese Internet regulations are again the talk of the town. Just over a week after Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, began to implement its much-discussed community policing arrangement, China’s State Council Information Office has posted a Chinese-language draft of its revised Internet law. Entitled “Methods for Governance of Internet Information Services,” the law is much broader and more complex than the one currently in effect.

This new draft law, which descends straight from the highest reaches of Chinese administrative authority, appears to pack a punch. Unlike the law currently on the books, this draft explicitly requires microblogs, blogs, and discussion fora to implement real-name regimes for their users. Currently, only micoblogging sites like Sina and Tencent have this requirement, although it is being slowly and porously implemented.

Strictly speaking, the real-name requirement extends to all “those who provide service allowing Internet users to publish information to the public” (提供由互联网用户向公众发布信息的服务). This could include social networks, sites that allow comments on their articles, or pretty much any platform that allows for user-generated content to be made publicly available.

The draft law also proposes to make life harder for Internet platforms in other ways. It requires more forms, more approvals, and more registrations. It requires that sites store as few as six and as many as twelve months’ worth of their activity in daily logs available for inspection, whereas current law requires 60 days’ worth. It also explicitly assigns personal (个人) liability to offenders in a way the current law does not.

What the change means, in real life

Despite the look of it, this not a sea change. The current law already assigns criminal liability to any service providers, broadly defined, who disseminate speech fitting any one of nine categories of harm. Moreover, Chinese authorities already exercise Internet control as they see fit, shutting down blogs and forums, occasionally arresting “bad actors,” and requiring Weibo, or China’s Twitter, to implement real-name registration.

Instead, it’s the message behind the law that matters, and the message to China’s social media is clear: We can shut you down. Providers of social media platforms will surely sweat when reminded by the State Council that their businesses merely exist at the pleasure of those in power. The law’s preamble now lists “protecting national safety and public interest” (维护国家安全和公共利益) as one of its objectives, and adds that which “incites illegal gatherings” (煽动非法聚集) to the category of illegal speech. This signals that Beijing is acutely aware of the potentially destabilizing power of China’s blogosphere.

Time to sweat, but not to panic

Beijing, however, is unlikely to pull the rug out from China’s social media. It is too useful to Chinese authorities, both as a steam valve for citizen discontent and as a window into public opinion. This may be one reason the law contains significant wiggle room. For example, it requires that public Internet platforms require their users to register with their real names–however, it does not assign platforms responsibility if users somehow find a way around the requirement. This opens the door for foot-dragging in the implementation of any real-name system, a tactic that Sina has already seemingly perfected.

The law also provides that first-time offenders be given a warning, and an unspecified amount of time to correct their mistakes before more severe action is taken. This means Internet companies won’t be blindsided by an enforcement action. While the time they are given to “correct” mistakes could be kept short by officials intent on squeezing them, it could also be extended indefinitely.

If this regime sounds vague, that’s because it is. Chinese statutory law often contains broad delegations of authority, with words like “should” where a U.S. lawyer, for example, would expect to see “must.” Practically speaking, officials in China exercise a great deal of discretion, and law is written to be a grant of authority, not a limitation.

Vague law, uncertain future

Netizens can stay calm, but the masters of the Internet should worry

So what’s next for China’s blogosphere? The draft law is open for comment until July 6. (For those interested in giving their two cents, you can email the State Council at gxbwz@scio.gov.cn or call them at +86 (010) 5888-0320. God speed.) After it takes effect, barring substantial changes to its wording, microblogging platforms, blogging platforms, and even search engines will have six months to get their troublesome licenses or face being shut down.

None of this will likely cow China’s netizens. Rightly convinced China revoles around realpolitik, they tweet away without regard for the letter of laws they have never bothered to read. Even Sina’s much-ballyhooed changes to its own user agreement have not appreciably changed Sina users’ behavior.

But executives at China’s premier online media platforms are surely sleeping restlessly tonight. China’s government has just reminded them who is really in charge.

[Fleur (pen name) contributed research to this article.]

[Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last day the draft law is open to comment. Thanks to reader Panglei for identifying the error.]

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.