Most users of the Chinese platforms have experienced incidents of their published comments being inexplicably deleted, especially critical comments about the government. Who do you believe is the driving force behind these events?
Until June 2023, there were 1 billion Internet users in China, which led the mobile application market to show a rapid upward trend. Chinese Platform Company became stronger and made great contributions to the economic development of China. When the number of massive users of Internet companies in China has increased and the online services of platforms provided have become the core foundation of society, such as Douyin, which has more than 750 million daily active users in China and is one of the most popular applications companies, it has set a record for the highest number of downloads for many times. With the emergence of such a huge user group, how to govern the internet has become the main concern of the government. In order to prevent problems such as untimely governance or insufficient governance from threatening the core policy, the Chinese government has expanded the control of platform data and information and intervened excessively in the internet governance of platforms, not only exposing the government’s ambitions but also made the users of the Chinese platform miserable.
What is internet governance?
Internet governance is divided into two parts, one is the governance of Internet technology by specific institutions, and the other is the governance of Internet content and applications.
Lawrence explained these two parts: “The Internet Engineering Task Force 1 (IETF) or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers 2 (ICANN).: these institutions can be said to govern the technical infrastructure and architecture of the Internet” (Solum，2008）. This part introduces the governance of the Internet from the technical aspect. These institutions work for the smooth operation of the Internet.
“policy issues that implicate the Internet: these questions include the regulation of online gambling, child pornography, freedom of speech, And the future of commerce and implied nation States and international organizations “(Solum, 2008). The other part is related to political issues. The governance of the Internet is similar to” law and politics “to some extent, which related to all aspects of life.
Behavior of the Chinese government
- Blocking foreign platforms
The Chinese government has long imposed strict access restrictions on social media platforms in many countries, especially the United States. For example, a few of the most popular platforms used by the American people: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. These platforms cannot be viewed or downloaded in China, directly closing off the flow of information from foreign platforms.
- China’s Firewall
Chinese firewall is a powerful tool for governing the internet and have even been rated as the most complicated internet censorship apparatus in the world (Freedom House, 2021), internet restrictions have a significant impact on internet speeds, connection stability and accessibility, posing barriers to trading companies to many companies from other countries. Surveys show that 64% of respondents are affected by firewalls (Gao, 2018). In addition, the Chinese government has cracked down on Virtual Private Networks (VPN), which are the only way for Chinese internet users to avoid censorship by firewalls, and with further government interference in internet governance, many Chinese internet users are no longer able to browse foreign platforms via VPNs.
- Filtering platform content
The Chinese government has enacted laws which announce that most government agencies have assumed responsibility for Internet monitoring and content censor. They verify content on platforms through the Internet Public Opinion Information Center and automatically filter out content that goes against the government’s core. National spending on filtering Internet content may have exceeded $6.6 billion. Such a movement jeopardizes Chinese netizens both in terms of profit and personal privacy.
Etheredge said: “There is always the possibility of regression: fragmentation, retribalization, and/or the option to use new technologies for political control and to reverse progress in human rights”（Etheredge，2002）. The words “new technologies for political control” in this sentence correspond to the Chinese government’s blocking of foreign platforms, forcibly reducing the inflow of diversified information through firewalls, and strengthening the government’s control over information. The words “reverse progress in human rights” represents the government’s filtering of content on platforms, and the excessive monitoring that offends the rights of Chinese netizens. These points illustrate that the Chinese government is overly involved in the platform’s online governance through such dictatorial behavior, and the purpose behind it is to better enforce its dictatorship and prevent the Internet from threatening its political status.
How does this affect the users?
In China, the government’s excessive governance over the platforms manifests itself in any software, each of which is monitored by the government without the user’s awareness, such as WeChat, Weibo, etc. In these platforms all user’s comments are censored and if the content is not in line with the country’s political stance it will be automatically deleted and in more serious cases the user may not be able to log in to their account. Government agencies have even issued a statement warning user that “The cyber police are right by your side. The eyes of the supervisor are watching you. You will exercise restraint and rationality when you post and write messages” (Fedasiuk, 2021).
- Some examples
- A journalist named Stephen McDonell was using WeChat in China, after he posted photos that the Chinese government did not allow to be distributed and answered a few questions about it to his friend, and the WeChat account became unusable. The reason given by the WeChat system was “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been temporarily blocked…” (McDonell, 2019). Apparently, his conversation with his friend was censored by the government’s cyber police without permission and outright canceled his WeChat access.
- In 2022, a fire broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, killing at least 10 people during the epidemic because the Chinese government’s quarantine policy prevented fire trucks from getting to the location in time to rescue them. Immediately after the incident, the government-imposed content controls on the Internet, making it impossible to post content related to the fire incident on Weibo or Douyin, with only some users using VPN or abroad speaking out on their behalf. The impact of this incident was dramatic that the government filtered the content of many users by interfering with the platform’s governance of the internet in order to prevent their political status from being affected. Although users have many complaints against the government, they are unable to express them.
- The effect of users
The Chinese government prevents Chinese internet users from thinking critically about political issues because all content is controlled by the government, depriving users of the right to know, and over-censoring users, who feel helpless by violating their right to privacy. An “Internet powerhouse” built on government control will only lead users into the Internet age of decline.
Is the state’s over-involvement in the internet governance of platforms a way to make Chinese platforms better?
In their article, Scott et al. illustrate how when China aggressively blocked foreign websites, Chinese platforms almost no longer faced competition from foreign firms, and these is a significant increase in the number of users and economic power (McKnight et al., 2023). The data in the article does show the progress of Chinese platforms, but this is not the way to make them better. This is because as the Internet grows, the Chinese government is uneasy about the platforms’ ability to govern internet, and controlling Chinese platforms has become easier, without the intervention of foreign media.
Internet governance of Chinese platforms has proved to be in a chronic situation of over-involvement by the Chinese government, which has had a very significant impact on users, both in terms of their rights and in terms of the logic of their thinking. In the face of this incident, the Chinese government should uphold the concept of “governance as peace making rather than confrontational” (Chika, 2023) to reduce the violation of users’ privacy rights.
Fedasiuk, R. (2021). Buying Silence: The Price of Internet Censorship in China. Jamestown. https://jamestown.org/program/buying-silence-the-price-of-internet-censorship-in-china/
Freedom House. (2021). China: Freedom on the Net 2021 Country Report. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/china/freedom-net/2021#footnote1_yausf08
Gao, C. (2018). China’s Great Firewall: A Serious Pain in the Neck for European and US Companies. Thediplomat.com. https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/chinas-great-firewall-a-serious-pain-in-the-neck-for-european-and-us-companies/
IETF. (2019). Home. IETF. https://www.ietf.org/
Iqbal, M. (2023, May 3). TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2023). Business of Apps; Business of Apps. https://www.businessofapps.com/data/tik-tok-statistics/
Lawrence, S. (2008). Models of Internet Governance (p. 48).
Leskin, P. (2019, October 10). Here are all the major US tech companies blocked behind China’s “Great Firewall” – Business Insider. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/major-us-tech-companies-blocked-from-operating-in-china-2019-5
McDonell, S. (2019, June 7). WeChat and the Surveillance State. BBC News; BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-48552907
McKnight, S., Kenney, M., & Breznitz, D. (2023). Regulating the platform giants: Building and governing China’s online economy. Policy & Internet. https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.336
Statista. (2023, August). China: number of internet users 2020. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/265140/number-of-internet-users-in-china/#statisticContainer
Week 4 lecture slides (pp.12)