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Censorship in China

Apple iTunes and Disney services shut down by new mainland Chinese rules

The regulation is aimed at managing online publishing services, in particular images, games, animation, comics, audio recordings and video

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 9:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 2016, 9:09am

Beijing’s aggressive new campaign to tighten control over online content on the mainland has claimed its first high-profile scalps: Apple’s iTunes store and The Walt Disney Company’s DisneyLife service.

It emerged on Friday that the two internet platforms were quietly closed under the new Regulation for the Management of Online Publishing Services, which was announced on February 13 and took effect early last month.

It imposed more stringent rules on the online publication of original or adapted “creative works”, such as images, games, animation, comics, audio recordings and video.

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Apple’s iTunes digital media store, which was introduced on the mainland in September, was reportedly closed last week under orders of the regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

“We hope to make our books and movies available again to our customers in China as soon as possible,” Apple’s spokeswoman in Beijing told the Post on Friday.

DisneyLife was apparently taken down early last month. The internet content delivery service was launched in December by partners Disney and e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s Ali Digital Entertainment. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

The platform became unavailable in early March – less than half a year after its official launch. The company will provide a full refund to its customers if they ask for it.

“It [the content delivery device] says the system is under repair since March 6,” Nora, a Beijing mother, wrote on the mainland’s Weibo social media platform, referring to the Disney platform. “Who will be responsible for the loss?”

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Dozens of negative comments about the sudden suspension were posted on the customer feedback section of Tmall, a shopping platform owned by Alibaba, as angry customers questioned why the repair process would take so long and what were the reasons for it.

A customer service employee at Tmall told the Post that the Mickey Mouse-themed device for the Disney service had been pulled from its online store “for a while”.

Instead of answering questions about repairs, he said customers should file a request to get back the 799 yuan (HK$957) they had paid for the box. “Other questions we don’t know,” he said.

However, the device is still available on Tmall’s Hong Kong site.

China expected to bar all foreign media companies from publishing ‘creative works’ online

The new online content regulation replaced the Temporary Regulation on the Management of Online Publishing, which took effect in 2001 soon after Beijing joined the World Trade Organisation.

The old law allowed licensed foreign joint ventures on the mainland to publish original and adapted creative works online.

Gartner analyst Sandy Shen said the new regulation “has a broad impact on most internet content publishers, including local providers”.

Under the new rules, domestic content providers who plan to cooperate with foreign companies or their joint ventures, foreign individuals and other overseas-based organisations must seek approval from the regulator.

Licensed online content publishers on the mainland are required to keep all servers and storage systems used in their enterprise in the country. These content providers must also practice self-censorship, according to the regulation.

In addition, local governments monitor domestic online publishers regularly and oversee their annual inspection.

“The rules are so broad that if the censors decide that they no longer want you providing any content they can force you to pull the plug,” said Paul Haswell, a partner at technology-focused international law firm Pinsent Masons.

“It is becoming an increasingly difficult and hostile market for foreign companies, and part of an increasing crackdown on the internet in China in the name of protecting online sovereignty,” he said.

Haswell said a compromise between Apple and the regulator was “unlikely to be reached”. Apple is expected “to comply with whatever led to the takedown to the satisfaction of the State Administration”, he said.

On the potential for increased friction between China and its trading partners due to the new regulation, Forrester Research analyst Charlie Dai said it “has no explicit conflict with China’s [World Trade Organisation] commitments”.

Haswell pointed out that mainland consumers would be frustrated, but take the new regulation in their stride.

“If you consume online content in China you are used to developments like this,” Haswell said. “Consumers will inevitably turn to a local platform or else use a virtual private network to use foreign services. Chinese netizens are very skilled at playing cat and mouse with government censors.”