China’s internet watchdog pushes for deeper engagement with internet platforms in 2022 to clean, control online content

  • The Cyberspace Administration of China called on internet platform operators to improve online community rules and tighten control over certain user groups
  • Increased regulatory scrutiny of these operators last year resulted in effective curbs against the ‘chaos’ of celebrity fan culture, fake news and other issues online

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) pledges to deepen efforts to monitor, review and clean up online content in the world’s biggest internet market this year, following an aggressive campaign in 2021 to remove information that the state deems harmful or inappropriate.

Increased regulatory scrutiny of internet platforms last year resulted in effective curbs against the “chaos” of celebrity fan culture, fake news and other issues online, according to CAC vice-minister Sheng Ronghua, in a statement published by the internet watchdog on Thursday.

That followed Sheng’s visit on Wednesday to the offices of Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo, where he also met representatives from other internet companies including Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings, Baidu, Kuaishou Technology, Meituan and Zhihu, according to the CAC statement. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

The CAC called on internet platform operators to establish strong content review teams and increase training for these employees. In addition, operators are required by the regulator to make necessary modifications to their online products related to self-discipline and rectification. These are designed to improve online community rules as well as strengthen control over certain user groups and organisations.

The CAC-led meeting comes months after the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council released internally a set of guidelines for building a “cyberspace civilisation”. It urges all levels of government to bring ideology, culture, moral standards and online behaviour under control, according to a summary published by state-run news outlet Xinhua.

The internet watchdog’s latest initiative reflects Beijing’s intention to keep Chinese internet companies under scrutiny, while directing them to root out content that fails to fit the values that the government endorses.

Beijing recently rolled out new rules that tightened its grip on online content, as part of efforts to create a “clean and healthy” domestic cyberspace. Earlier this month, a new regulation took effect that reins in algorithms used on apps to recommend what consumers would like to read, watch, play and buy online.

Algorithms, which leverage artificial intelligence and big data generated by app users, have helped shape trends and online discussions in China, which has the world’s largest internet population as well as the biggest market for e-commerce, video gaming and smartphones.

Beijing also has a “zero-tolerance” approach to cases of inciting violence online, according to a commentary published on Thursday by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.

“Cyberspace is not a place without law enforcement,” said the article, which was posted on the WeChat account of the newspaper’s opinion column. “[Inciting] internet violence not only affects people’s normal life, but also pollutes the online environment. It must be rectified according to law.”

During the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics last month, Weibo removed more than 41,000 posts and banned 850 accounts that “created trouble” during the event. That action followed the online abuse heaped on Zhu Yi, a 19-year-old US-born figure skater who represented Team China.

Since 2016, CAC has kicked off a series of Qinglang campaigns that targeted “online chaos” such as those that spread misinformation and encourage internet violence.

Still, recent instances of censorship by internet platforms have generated an online backlash. Last month, multiple deleted scenes and altered reference about a recurring lesbian character in the 1990s US television sitcom Friends sparked outrage among the popular show’s large audience on the mainland.

Authors: Iris Deng, Tracy Qu, SCMP

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