China’s Cybersecurity Administration Cracks Down on Free Speech

The Cybersecurity Administration of China (CAC), the country’s central internet censorship, oversight, and control agency, has had a busy summer. According to a CAC report, between April to June of this year, the agency revoked over 3,918 ICP licenses (permits required for Chinese-based websites to operate in China), revoked over 810,000 user accounts on various websites, issued warnings to 172 of the 443 websites it has investigated, and transferred 316 cases to Chinese police authorities for criminal investigations.

On June 1, China’s Cybersecurity Law (CSL) went into effect. The new law formalizes the authority of the CAC to investigate, censor, and punish service providers in China and gives the CAC broad rulemaking authority through its  expansive language.[1]

While China already has a longstanding record of internet censorship, the passing of the CSL coincides with a significant uptick in censorship activity. According to the CAC’s website, 3.7 million incidents of illegal content were reported in June alone, an increase of over 40% over the previous year.[2] According to this report, over 40% of the identified illegal content was political speech. In August, the CAC announced that it would investigate China’s top three internet giants (Tencent WeChat, Sina, and Baidu) for failing to fulfill their duties to regulate users who post content that is illegal under the CSL. That investigation is still ongoing.

In late August, the CAC issued four new rules under the CSL designed to erode privacy and anonymity in online discussions. The new rules require all users of internet forums, message boards, group chats, and comment threads to provide their real identities before posting. While users can still choose screen names (or appear as “anonymous”) for their posts, their identities will be known to the Chinese government. Furthermore, these rules establish a social media “credit score”: users’ access to group chat services will be restricted according to their credit rating; unruly users may have their credit scores lowered and their cases reported to authorities.

The CAC’s aggressive approach will almost certainly have chilling effects on freedom of expression in China at a crucial time: the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a summit of the highest-ranking leadership in China’s government, began on October 18. While online instant messaging apps and comment threads were once seen as safe havens for anonymous users to post political speech, the new rules would allow the government to de-anonymize, identify, and punish these users at will. In a chilling example of these rules in action, police authorities in the Guandong province of China detained a man earlier this month for moderating several political chat groups on Tencent’s popular WeChat platform.

Together, these restrictions and events paint a grim picture: the ability of Chinese netizens to freely express their ideas is rapidly declining. There is still an opportunity for international organizations to support free speech in China by providing services to Chinese citizens who wish to engage in free political speech. For example, the Chinese government has ordered the country’s state-owned telecoms to prevent their users from using virtual private networks (VPNs) beginning in February 2018. While at least one domestic VPN has already shut down, foreign VPNs, such as KeepSolid and VyprVPN, have announced initiatives to circumvent detection efforts by the telecom providers. While the international community should continue to urge the Chinese government to reconsider the CSL, what Chinese netizens need now is a lifeline to keep freedom of expression alive on the other side of the Great Firewall.

[1] However, the CSL does not affect foreign companies that do not maintain network infrastructure in China or collect data from Chinese users.

[2] See also Sarah Zhao, Sally Qin & Stephanie Sun, An Update On China’s Cybersecurity Law, 3 Months In, Law360 (Sept. 8, 2017) (discussing how the law has been enforced since taking effect).