What happens when two “big-brothers” join forces? China is about to find out. The Chinese government introduces new censorship measures specifically targeting social media, and Chinese social media technology firms agree to co-operate.
China is a country with strict censorship laws, and these laws apply to the Internet and social media. In fact, Internet use in China is often referred to under the tongue in cheek guise of “the great firewall of China”. However, despite already heavy Internet restrictions, the Chinese government has suffered the fallout of negative social media buzz throughout 2011. In particular, a train crash in the Zheijang province had social media users questioning everything from the crash itself to possible government cover ups.
As a result of this and other incidents, China is seeking to further “stop the spread of harmful information” over the Internet, and the government is not alone. Top executives from the country’s major Internet firms met this weekend. At the private conference, attendees included Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office, representatives from Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular mico-blogging site that boasts over 250 million users, Baidu, the search engine giant, and representatives from Sina Corp’s. At the conclusion of the meeting, the government and the firms had reached a “common agreement”. Reuters reports that the agreement includes the goal to “conscientiously safeguard the broadcasting of positive messages online.”
It further noted: “Resolutely curb the spread of rumours online, online pornography, Internet fraud and the illegal spread of harmful information on the Internet.”
In a country where most social networks already have existing “content managing teams” in place in order to control information and spread of messages that the government might take issue with, it is significant that the Chinese government feels it is necessary to take further steps. While there are no concrete details of what the report and the agreement means, it should cause concern for Chinese social media users.
Phrases like “harmful information” and “positive messages” are vague at best and dangerous at worst. After all, what qualifies as “harmful” or “positive”, and is it only the government that gets to decide? For now, Chinese social media users will need to exercise extra caution.