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China’s internet regulator says it will “close down websites and user accounts that are not in line with the laws and regulations”. Photo: EPA

China’s cyber police take aim at ‘negative information’ in new internet crackdown

  • All websites, mobile phone apps, forums, instant messaging and live-streaming platforms will be vetted for vulgar and violent content, rumours and superstition during six-month campaign

China’s cybersecurity police announced a new campaign on Thursday targeting websites and web applications that spread what they called “negative information” on the internet.

The six-month crackdown officially started this month, according to a notice posted on the Cyberspace Administration of China’s website.

During the clampdown, all websites, mobile phone apps, forums, instant messaging and live-streaming platforms will be vetted for any vulgar and violent content as well as rumours, superstition and information that “fuels hatred, spreads unhealthy lifestyles and pop culture”.

The notice also said that the internet regulator would “hold whoever is responsible accountable” and called on the operators of websites and online platforms to cooperate.

“We will carry out vigorous inspections and close down websites and user accounts that are not in line with the laws and regulations,” the notice said. “The goal is to effectively stem the flow of harmful information and … to encourage a healthy web environment.”

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It comes just two months after a major internet crackdown last year, during which about 10,000 privately run blogs were closed and major tech companies such as Tencent and Weibo were affected.

Mobile phone apps will be in the cross hairs during the six-month campaign. Photo: EPA

The latest crackdown has had an immediate impact. Internet company Sohu, which has more than 100 million users, said that its news channel and smartphone apps would stop updating for a week. It followed the disappearance three months ago of the company’s news application software from iPhone and Android stores.

In addition, the Beijing Municipal Administration said on its official WeChat account that after talks with Baidu, one of China’s biggest search engines, the company had suspended several web channels – including those on recommended news, women’s topics and jokes – for a week.

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Li Yi, a senior research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said that such campaigns had become a regular occurrence for internet users in China.

“There seems to be a pattern here, that the supervising departments need to raise Damocles’ sword from time to time – and for those being supervised to admit that they are in the wrong,” he said, adding that the regular campaigns also acted as a reminder not to overstep the boundaries.

Li said that internet companies in China, especially those providing content, had become relatively “restrained” over the years.

“They consciously put ‘mainstream’ content at the top of the page, including information about government leaders,” Li said. “It demonstrates how the party is exercising control and leadership over the everything in China.”

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During last year’s crackdown, internet companies fell swiftly into line. The popular social network WeChat, for example, removed more than 300,000 articles and closed more than 200,000 user accounts it deemed to contain violent, pornographic or misleading content in 2018.

Previous internet “clean-up” campaigns in China have taken aim at unauthorised internet connections such as virtual private networks, or VPNs – a popular way to skirt restrictions by re-routing traffic to other locations, allowing users on the mainland to gain access to blocked sites that might be critical of the party such as Facebook, Twitter and foreign news sites.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Latest crackdown keeps pressure on mainland websites