China is tightening rules for online news as censors try to control a flood of information spread through instant-messaging apps, blogs and other media sources that are proliferating across the country.
The rules announced Tuesday will require online publishers to obtain government licenses and block foreign or private companies from investing in online news services or directly disseminating news.
Chinese news outlets will have to undergo a security review before working with foreign companies, according to a statement from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the agency charged with enforcing the rules, which take effect June 1.
The move follows a crackdown on dissent under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping that has led to tighter controls on what can be published online.
With the latest rules, the government will require internet companies to censor what their customers see or risk losing their right to distribute news, Chinese media expert Qiao Mu said.
“This is aimed at the companies rather than the individual users,” he said. “It’s not only to ideologically control information, but also to control the source of the information.”
There are more than 700 million internet users in China. Authorities have long sought to block material considered subversive by erasing objectionable items off news sites and microblogs. Under an elaborate censorship system that’s been dubbed the Great Firewall, websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked.
Many internet users in China regularly circumvent that system by using virtual private networks, or VPNs. Those offer encrypted connections intended to thwart censorship and allow access to banned sites.
The new rules adopt a more proactive approach, dictating restrictions on news site ownership and funding and targeting companies or individuals that violate them. News services will face penalties such as criminal prosecution if they fail to “persist in … serving socialism,” promote a “benign online culture,” and “safeguard the national interest.”
Qiao said three of China’s biggest internet companies — Baidu, Tencent, and NetEase — could be affected. Each provides access to news: Baidu via its popular search platform, Tencent through the WeChat messaging app and NetEase through its Mobile News app.
Numerous smaller news providers that use the larger companies’ platforms also would fall under the new rules, Qiao said.
Baidu spokeswoman Whitney Yan said the company had no comment. Representatives of Tencent and Netease did not immediately respond to questions about the new rules.
The rules target Chinese internet services and seem unlikely to affect foreign news organizations and websites based overseas, many of which are already blocked in China.
How much information gets filtered out will be determined by how forcefully agencies including the Cybersecurity Administration enforce the new rules, said Zhan Jiang with the Department of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
The official Xinhua News Agency characterized the rules as a security measure intended in part to protect the privacy of users.
But the rules also reveal rising anxiety among the country’s rulers over a “digital activism” that is driving change across Chinese society, said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. Those worries have been heightened, he said, by the sudden rise in popularity of quasi-autonomous services such as WeChat, which has become ubiquitous in some major cities.
“There are millions of Chinese netizens capable of circumventing the Great Firewall,” Xiao said, adding that has left leaders fearful “of losing control of online media, which plays an essential role of shaping public minds in China today.”
Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng contributed to this story.