Chinese censors ring in the new year with six-month cyber crackdown
Private citizens and internet giants like Baidu are being targeted
The new year has just begun, but Chinese censors are already hard at work.
Starting this month, China’s cyber watchdog is kicking off a six-month internet crackdown. Websites, online forums, instant messengers and live streaming platforms are being scrutinized for what’s deemed negative and harmful content. That includes pornography, violence, rumors, spoofs, superstition and other inappropriate topics.
(That may sound like many of the things you run into on the internet everyday. But don’t forget, in China, many globally popular websites like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and YouTube are banned.)
The operation got off to a roaring start, with big names Baidu and Sohu first on the hit list. Representatives from both companies were summoned for talks with Beijing’s cyberspace regulators last week and scolded for spreading vulgar content. Several of their news feeds were suspended for a week.
To put that into context, imagine if Google was asked to pull down parts of its News section. That’s basically what happened here.
None of this is new of course. And if 2018 was anything to go by, this year could see more clampdown on web content providers.
Late last year, more than 9,800 accounts on WeChat and Weibo were shuttered for causing “chaos” on the internet. Another 110,000 social media accounts were axed during the winter holiday season.
Authorities left a warning: For the first time ever, they said strict controls on social media accounts will become the new norm.
The focus appears to have turned towards individuals more often than before -- and content platforms have taken to self-censorship to avoid provoking the government.
In a high profile case in October, an internet celebrity saw her live streaming account suspended after she broadcasted herself singing the national anthem in what was deemed a disrespectful way. She was later detained by police for five days.
More recently, LinkedIn temporarily blocked the profile page of a human rights activist in China, citing “requirements of the Chinese government”. The company later said the the profile was taken down in error and restored it.
Meanwhile some Chinese Twitter users told the Washington Post that state security agents showed up at their doorsteps, demanding that they delete tweets related to politically sensitive topics. Some said their accounts were hacked.
But there are more ways to get yourself in trouble besides saying the wrong things.
Virtual private network (VPN) services, which enable Chinese internet surfers to circumvent China’s great firewall to reach censored websites, are drawing increasing scrutiny. Individuals selling VPN software have been convicted.
And users aren’t immune either: Lately in a rare case, a man was fined US$164 for accessing foreign websites using a VPN.