China is taking another step to restrict what can be posted on the Internet in its country by issuing new rules barring foreign companies or their affiliates from engaging in publishing online content there without government approval.
The rules, which were jointly released this week by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said that beginning March 10, foreign companies or foreign joint ventures will be restricted from disseminating a wide range of content online, including text, maps, games, animation, audio and video.
The rules also apply to digitized books, art, literature and science. The new regulations would allow foreign-owned companies to cooperate with a Chinese partner to publish content on the Web in China, but they must get government approval.
China already has some of the world’s most restrictive policies on the dissemination of information. Chinese TV and the news media are censored; the government has censors monitoring popular social media platforms, like WeChat; and American Internet giants, like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have been blocked in China for years.
Legal scholars say the new rules seem aimed at restricting any type of content that might be considered a threat to the Communist Party, or social stability, with the regulations hinting at a greater effort to bring anything published by foreign entities under Chinese law.
“This is the latest in a series of legal changes that seek to restrict the influence of foreign or western ideas,” said Jacques deLisle, an authority on Chinese law who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. “And it’s also part of a larger attempt to exercise control over the Internet and new media.”
The new regulations, though, do not detail exactly what types of content and which organizations would be affected. Though the new rules, for example, might seem to apply to foreign news organizations in China, existing rules already restrict global media outlets from posting content on the Internet using servers inside China. Most global news outlets, including The New York Times, are published on servers outside China, and are unlikely to be affected by the new rules.
Still, legal experts say the regulations announced this week are broad enough to pose challenges to a wide range of foreign multinationals operating in China, since many of them act as distributors of online content or services.
There are also questions about how such regulations would be enforced, and what types of companies would be considered distributors of online content. As a result, they could raise market-access issues for foreign companies in China ahead of trade talks with the United States.
Analysts say Chinese laws are often vague and broad, which gives regulators the ability to claim greater jurisdiction. As a result, how laws are implemented is often more important than the letter of the law.
One key question is the impact such regulations would have on companies like Apple and Microsoft, which run online platforms in China that provide services and sometimes content. For example, Apple’s Chinese App Store offers games and other apps in the country while Microsoft has a joint venture through which it provides a cloud version of Windows and Office software. Internet companies, like Akamai and Cloud Flare, have operations that work to speed traffic to foreign websites or host them through servers in China.
A large number of foreign games for smartphones are released through joint ventures between Chinese companies and multinationals, and it appears the new regulations could affect those partnerships.
Multinational companies have long complained that the rules in China are discriminatory. Foreign firms need licenses that can be difficult to get to operate web services in China, and there are restrictions on their ability to invest in many Chinese sectors. Several big companies, including Microsoft, have also been the subject of anti-trust investigations.
The regulations stipulate that anything published online should “serve the people” and promote socialism and do no harm to national interests, barring, for instance, the spreading of rumors or propagating evil cults.
Paul Gillis, an accounting expert who teaches at Peking University in Beijing, says a lot will also be determined by the way China executes and enforces the rules, since there is tremendous variation in the way laws are enacted and enforced in the country and to whom they apply.
“What about law firms and accounting firms — are they going to be subject to these rules?” he said. “And what about companies that just have an instruction manual online, are they also going to fall under this type of rule?”
Text: The New York Times by David Barboza and Paul MozurFEB. 19, 2016