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China to soon require prior approval of all online comments?

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(TibetanReview.net, Jun19’22) – All the billions of online comments posted in the People’s Republic of China every day may soon be required to be pre-reviewed before being published, further tightening the already very limited freedom of expression in the one of the world’s most severely censored country, according to a technologyreview.com report Jun 18.

The country’s internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published on Jun 17 a draft update on the responsibilities of platforms and content creators in managing online comments. One line stands out, the report noted: all online comments would have to be pre-reviewed before being published.

This will be an update on Provisions on the Management of Internet Post Comments Services, which first came into effect in 2017.

The new rule is said to be meant to target replies and bullets chats which currently tend to be “moderated carelessly, with minimum effort.”

Recently, there have been several awkward cases where comments under government Weibo accounts went rogue, pointing out government lies or rejecting the official narrative. That could be what has prompted the regulator’s proposed update, the report noted.

Chinese social platforms are already on the front lines of censorship work, often actively removing posts before the government and other users can even see them. ByteDance famously employs thousands of content reviewers, who make up the largest number of employees at the company. Other companies outsource the task to “censorship-for-hire” firms, including one owned by China’s party mouthpiece People’s Daily. The platforms are frequently punished for letting things slip, the report noted.

But the new rule about mandating pre-publish reviews, if strictly enforced, would require reading billions of public messages posted by Chinese users every day. And it will force the platforms to dramatically increase the number of people they employ to carry out censorship. The tricky question is, no one knows if the government intends to enforce this immediately, the report said.

Weibo, the popular Twitter-like service, currently review content before it’s even published only to accounts that have violated content censorship rules before, or when there’s an ongoing heated discussion about a sensitive topic. The 2017 version limited such actions to “comments under news information,” so it didn’t need to be applied universally. But the new update takes out that restriction, the report said.

It added that on social media, some users were worried that this meant the practice can be expanded to cover every single comment online and people were said to ask whether this was even necessary.

The report cited Eric Liu, a former censor for Weibo who’s now researching Chinese censorship at China Digital Times, as saying this was an extreme interpretation of the proposed change because censoring every comment would incur astronomical costs to social media platforms.

He is said to see it as unlikely Beijing will go so far to enforce blanket pre-publish censorship. Rather, the revisions are more likely intended to force platforms to take more responsibility in moderating the comments section, which has traditionally been ignored, he has said.

The regulator is now seeking public comments on the proposed revisions until Jul 1, 2022, and they may not take effect for many months. Right now, discussions about how strictly they will be enforced are only speculative, the report noted.

Still, “the new system could … tighten the already limited space for freedom of expression on sensitive topics even further,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, has said.

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