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Rachel Wang

Chinese Web Users Voice Skepticism at New “Information Protection” Law

(iStockphoto.com/Nomadsoul1)

On December 18 2012, an opinion piece titled “The Internet Is Not Outside the Law” was published on the front page of the People’s Daily, a print media in China considered a mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party. The commentary read in part: “Considering how fast [the Internet] has developed, how simple it is to get online, and the anonymity  of [online life]…many people have joined in without a second thought.” The result, People’s Daily declared: “Actions and words online might break the law unintentionally…victims of online fraud, infringement, and attacks suffer no less than the victims of traditional fraud, infringement, and attacks.”

Rumbles in the distance

This short piece turned out to be a start of a series of warnings. On December 20 and 21, respectively, the People’s Daily published front-page articles titled “The Internet Should be Operated Based on Laws” and “Laws Make the Internet a Safer and More Convenient Space.” Together, the articles warned of “online fraud and online defamation…among the majority of positive and healthy messages,” and “untrue information [online being] overwhelmingly likely to leave opportunities for criminals.” The solution, beyond the “self-purification” (自我净化) that some Chinese Web users argue sufficient, is “other mechanisms to draw boundaries and be regulated according to the law.”

People’s Daily was not alone among state media calling for tighter controls. The website for state-run news service Xinhua published a piece called “Weaving the ‘Legislative Net’ that Protects Personal Privacy” which held that “[government should] cut the interest chain of illegal personal information trading, enforce the management of network service providers and block the leaking of personal information.” Guangming Daily and China Central Television also issued similar calls. Writing on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, well-known Chinese online media watchdog Michael Anti (@安替) complained on December 30, “Today is the 13th day in a row that xinwen lianbo [China’s syndicated news program, often taken to signal high-level policy] has attacked the Internet.”

This was not just idle chatter. On December 28, about 10 days after the first official warning appeared on People’s Daily, a new law aiming at enhancing the protection of personal information online and safeguard public interests was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. According to Xinhua, “The 12-article decision includes an identity management policy requiring Internet users to use their real names to identify themselves to service providers, including Internet or telecommunications operators.” This policy is outlined in article 6 of the new rules: “Network service providers should require users to provide genuine identification information when signing agreements to grant them access to the Internet.”

Online reaction

This new regulation has touched a sensitive nerve among Chinese Web users. Given that Weibo has been used as a grassroots platform for exposing corrupt officials, users have raised concerns that this new law could hamper the exposure of corruption cases online, mute public criticism, and threaten the supervisory role of the Internet. For example, Weibo user @小狼不吃羊 posed a direct question to the People’s Daily: “Please explain, does ‘The Internet is not outside the law’ mean that the general public cannot criticize or even comment on governments’ and related organs’ actions?” @雪舞庐州 joked, “Just read the article ‘The Internet is not outside the law.’ Suddenly realized it’s time for us to be more honest.”

However, Li Fei, deputy director of the Commission for Legislative Affairs of the NPC Standing Committee, was quoted by Xinhua saying that such worries are “unnecessary.” According to Li, “identity management work can be conducted backstage, allowing users to use different names when posting material publicly.”

Chinese netizens have a different understanding. In particular, they noted the fast pace of the law-making process in this instance, and what appeared to be tacit cooperation between different state organs. In a widely-shared post, Xu Xin (@徐昕), a law professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, recounted seven anti-corruption regulations approved by the central government in July 1989. They include anti-corruption regulations aimed at “firmly preventing children and spouses of senior cadres from doing business” and “cleaning up companies and heavily punishing collusion between businesses and the government officials.” Though these were published more than twenty years ago, most of the problems they were intended to address still exist and have in some cases become more serious. @淡水鱼少爷 commented on the contrast: “It took about merely 20 days since the state media opined to the approval of the decision. This is the difference between regulating the officials and regulating the public.” @zjd别勉强自己 added, “The official asset disclosure law [requiring government officials to publicize their finances] [was planned] in 1994, and it’s still unborn after 18 years.”

Some users argued that other areas of Chinese society cry out for regulation more than the Internet. @刘溪的围脖 asked, “If the Internet is not outside the law, how about officials’property? How about forced evictions? How about crumbling buildings and bridges? … You ignore so many areas ‘outside the law,’ yet regard public opinion as a threat.”

Many users argued that the apparent focus on rumors was misguided, and pointed to what they argued was the Web’s self-correcting mechanism. @馬上說書, a photographer with more than 200,000 followers, wrote, “In an environment with a free flow of information, rumors will lose their vitality when they collide [with the triuth]. What [they] really fear is the truth, the uncontrollable truth.”

It is worth noting, however, that the vast balance of the new rules are, at least on their surface, aimed at online fraud and the purchase and sale of users’ private information. However, grassroots online commentary has largely ignored these parts. Whatever the authorities’ original purpose, the discussion of these rules has become another outlet for criticism of government’s infringement on citizens right of speech, which is guaranteed in the letter of Chinese constitutional law, if not always in practice.

As so often happens on the Chinese Internet, humor has become an outlet for the anger and the fear many feel online. The phrase “is not outside the law” has become a meme of sorts, with users liberally peppering the words in commentary meant to satirize lawless officials. Scholar @熊培云 sought to turn the phrase on its own head: “The Internet is not outside the law, but outside the Internet [there is lawlessness]. This is the truth.”

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Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").