China restricts sharing of 'unofficial' videos on social media

New regulations block public accounts from posting ‘user-generated audio or video’, often one of the few sources of information outside state media

China has banned the vast majority of internet users from sharing videos not from official sources on social media, tightening censorship in what was already one of the most oppressive internet regime’s in the world.

The new regulations barred public accounts from posting “user-generated audio or video”, often one of the few sources of information outside state media articles relaying the government’s version of events.

China has some of the most pervasive censorship in the world. Activists have been jailed for as little as a single tweet, editors at outspoken newspapers are sacked and news articles deemed inappropriate by officials are swiftly deleted.

It was ranked by Reporters Without Borders as one of the worst countries for press freedom, with conditions better than only North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Eritrea.

China’s two largest social media platforms were called out by name in the new rules, with the majority of videos shared on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo and WhatsApp meets Facebook WeChat.

“Weibo, WeChat and other online social media are not allowed to disseminate user-generated audio or video programs about current events,” said the notice from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Social media companies must “strengthen management” of videos, a common euphemism for censorship.

“It’s likely to weed out smaller players,” said Duncan Clark, founder of investment advisory firm BDA China, which specialises in the Chinese internet. “The government prefers to have concentration on larger sites, where it has greater sway.

“There has also been an explosion of live-streaming sites in recent years, and the government is keen to rein them in and assert control,” he added. But the larger implications for China’s already limited freedom of online speech will depend on how strongly the new rules are implemented, Clark said.

Videos made by internet users has boomed in the past year, with live streaming apps some of the most popular, quickly running afoul of censors. Weibo has more than 400m video views each day according to some estimates.

“We are seeing short video and live video taking off,” Gaofei Wang, Weibo’s CEO, said in a recent financial filing, adding that the company’s main source of new expenses was from an increase in hosting video.

Videos shot on mobile phones are often the only record of a side of China rarely seen by the outside world or the millions of Chinese who consume only government-approved media. Images that quickly spread online include the thousands of minor protests that happen every year across China, wrongdoing by police, or evidence of Tibetan self immolations.

The ban comes just weeks after a draft law aimed to give local police the power to censor the internet in the wake of natural disasters, another situation where the government often struggle to control the narrative.

Foreign internet companies have had to choose between censorship and access. Facebook is reportedly working on a tool that suppresses content in news feeds in an attempt to overcome a seven year ban, while Google publicly pulled out of China after it stopped complying with government censorship directives.

The news landed quietly among China’s internet users, with only a handful discussing the new rules on Sina Weibo, many seemingly resigned to ever increasing censorship.

“The authorities regulate everything, what a step backward for Weibo,” one user said on the online platform.

“What do we do now, just give up on self-made media?” another commenter said.


Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

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