By Oiwan Lam
New regulations in China will make chat group administrators responsible — and even criminally liable — for messages containing politically sensitive material, rumors and violent or pornographic content.
The regulations also demand that all chat room users in mainland China verify their real identity.
Introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China on 7 September, the “Regulation on the Management of Internet Chat Group Service” represents a bold policy shift by extending the work of regulating online content beyond government workers and companies to the users themselves. Indeed, chat group administrators are merely users of chat services like WhatsApp, WeChat and QQ who create and manage groups that might chat about anything from childcare to the Communist Party congress.
From 8 October onward, chat group administrators will become a key human resource in China’s internet control infrastructure.
The regulations also require that the companies record, monitor and retain users’ chat records for at least six months and notify authorities whenever they spot abusive use of group chats.
The initial regulation, issued by the Cyberspace Administration, stressed that group administrators should be responsible for the contents posted on the chat group. But it did not specify what exactly these responsibilities would be. The Public Security Bureau soon after stepped in, presenting nine types of content that should not be posted on chat groups:
Regulation on the Management of Internet Chat Group Service: Prohibited Content
Effective 8 October, the following types of content will be prohibited in chat groups on China-based messaging platforms:
1. Sensitive political content
3. Internal documents [of the Chinese Communist Party and government units] 4. Content that is vulgar, pornographic, violent or shows drug-related criminal acts
5. News from Hong Kong and Macau that has not been reported by official media outlets
6. Military information
7. State secrets
8. Videos from anonymous sources that insult or destroy police’s reputation
9. Other illegal information
Chat group administrators who fail to remove prohibited content from chats can face criminal charges or administrative detention.
In addition to the list, the Public Security Bureau also presented a number of past cases, cited below, in which chat group administrators were punished through criminal prosecution or “political consequences.”
Case one: Insulting police officers
A man from Jieshou county of Anhui province was frustrated by traffic police, who had established a late night checkpoint for drunk driving. In a chat room that he created, he wrote: “Are they nuts? Checking in the rain? [They are] a bunch of assholes who just want money.” As the insulting comments created negative social impact within his circle, the man was detained for five days for picking a quarrel.
Case two: Online petition
On 27 June 2016, several party members from Qianjiang city in Hubei province violated the law by illegally using a WeChat group to circulate a petition against a construction plan for a pesticide factory. The incident led to a public rally and obstructed public order. Recently, nine members of the chat group received party discipline, five received discipline warnings and 40 had to be re-educated. The administrator of the group received a discipline warning as he did not stop the petition and channelled the opinions in the chat group.
Case three: Indecent and obscene articles
A young person in Shenyang city created a 100+ member chat group. One of the members in the group kept sending out messages about a “big hit movie” and asked other group members to pay for access to [what turned out to be] a pornographic video. As the group administrator did not stop the member from selling the videos in the group, the police arrested him under the charge of “distributing obscene material.”
Case four: Gambling activities
A man from Fuxin prefecture of Liaoning province abused the “red envelope” function [a way to send money, as a gift] in several chat groups for gambling purposes between June to August 2015. The court sentenced the man to 2.5 years with a three-year suspension and a fine of RMB 50,000 yuan [approximately USD $8,000].
It is not clear whether these users’ activities were observed by chat service companies, chat group administrators, or some combination of the two.
Following the introduction of China’s regulation on “rumors” in 2013, many netizens migrated from open social media platforms (such as Sina Weibo, similar to Twitter) to chat services for sharing information, because these tools allowed them to create closed groups and have semi-private conversations.
But in recent years, multiple netizens have been arrested due to the political nature of their comments on private chat groups. These new regulations seem to codify the practices behind these arrests and suggest that censorship over chat group messages will soon be much more robust.
On Weibo, netizens are anticipating how the new regulation might affect group chats that use dark humor:
The new regulations will go into force on 8 October.
This post was originally published on Global Voices.