China Cranks Up Censorship of Instant Messaging Services

China Dragons Illustration - P 2014
Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

China Dragons Illustration - P 2014

New rules imposed by the country's Internet watchdog will force users to register using their real names.

China's Internet watchdog has issued rules forcing real-name registrations on public accounts of instant messaging apps and requiring those wishing to publish or reprint political news to seek prior approval.

China has been stepping up online censorship in recent months.

While the Beijing government say the new rules are aimed at helping the fight against terrorism, rights activists believe the regulations are aimed at keeping tabs on free speech in the relatively uncontrolled world of mobile messaging.

The new rules will impact on popular mobile messaging apps such as Tencent's WeChat, which has almost 400 million users, as well other services such as QQ, also operated by Tencent, Alibaba's Laiwang, NetEase's Yixin and Xiaomi's Miliao. Twitter is banned in China, and can only be accessed using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Tencent, which has Asia's largest Internet company, has closed more than 100 public WeChat accounts, the official news agency Xinhua reported Thursday.

China has also told South Korea it has blocked access to two mobile messaging services, Kakao Talk and Line, which it said were used to exchange terrorism-related information.

The instant messaging provider must have professional staff, protect user information and privacy, accept social supervision and report illegal information. The instant messaging provider must register using their real identity.

"Users shall abide by laws and regulations, the socialist system, national interests, the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, public order, social morality and ensure the authenticity of the information they provide," according to the new rules.

Only approved news agencies and websites will be allowed to post or tweet the news, the rules said, and accounts that have not been approved are forbidden to publish or reprint political news.

"A few people are using the platforms to disseminate information related to terrorism, violence and pornography as well as slander and rumors," Jiang Jun, a spokesman for the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) told Xinhua. "Such behavior has raised bitter feelings among netizens."

Service providers must verify and publicly mark accounts that can publish or reprint political news.

The clampdown on instant messaging sites comes after last year's crackdown on "online rumor mongering", whereby anyone who tweeted something suspect that was retweeted more than 500 times faced prosecution.

The rules saw people abandon Twitter-like microblog platforms such as Weibo after authorities detained hundreds of outspoken users, with many users moving to services such as WeChat.

Public account users must also sign an agreement with the service provider when they register, promising "to comply with the law, the socialist system, the national interest, citizens' legal rights, public order, social moral customs, and authenticity of information," Xinhua said.