China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), announced draft guidelines that require platforms to engage a content moderation team “commensurate with the volume of the service” to evaluate all user comments and filter out “dangerous” ones before posting.
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The rules apply to all types of comments, including original postings, replies and “bullet conversations,” which are real-time remarks that appear on top of a video.
China’s internet users are concerned that if a proposed legislation requiring internet platforms to analyse every social media comment is passed, the country’s already limited area for free speech will be further diminished.
The idea is out for public comment until 1st July, but it has already sparked concerns that it will increase the cost of operations for Chinese IT businesses and restrict what internet users may post online.
According to Vincent Brussee, an analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, the rule is an update to the existing censorship mechanism in online content regulations, and it is likely designed to strengthen the review for comments, though it will not be able to catch all offending comments right away.
“Comments are an increasingly popular feature, and the regulations – now over five years old – have to keep up with the times,” added Brussee, adding that Beijing’s plan to enhance censorship in this sector is not surprising given the country’s increased efforts to control the internet in recent years.
For the first time, the document proposes that the person or entity who uploads a post is also responsible for the comments made by other users, which has caused some influencers to be more cautious about the content they publish.
“I can’t imagine how it would be possible to check every comment on the internet,” said Kelly Wu, an active user of the bullet chat function on Bilibili, a popular video site in China.
“There are already a lot of sensitive words that would trigger censorship on the platform, which means the comments are already being reviewed,” Wu added. “Reviewing every bullet chat comment before it is published means people will not be able to have real-time interactions, which is the whole point of the function.”
The plan has elicited no public response from any Chinese social media platform. Some of the more popular ones, including microblogging site Weibo and Tencent Holdings’ multipurpose app, WeChat, are already known to use keyword-filtering algorithms to aggressively block politically sensitive information.
“It’s really hard [for platforms] to figure out what the red lines are, so the censorship will only get stricter,” said Di Chen, a lecturer at Harbin University of Science . “Users either need to use alternative expressions for sensitive words to dodge censors, or become bystanders on the internet without joining in discussions.”
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Even draught regulations in China are frequently passed without major adjustments, some Chinese internet users are organising petitions and attempting to push back against some of the proposed rules.