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China's New Internet-Censorship Rules Highlight Role of Algorithms

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/26/2019 Yoko Kubota
a screen shot of a video game© how hwee young/European Pressphoto Agency

BEIJING—China’s control over online content is likely to tighten further with a comprehensive set of rules that defines what is bad or illegal content, and what content is encouraged, and highlights the role that algorithms play in recommending content to users.

The new rules, released by the Cyberspace Administration of China on its website Friday, targets producers of online content, including individuals and operators of apps and other platforms.

The rules, set to come into effect in March, are the latest example of the growing government pressure that technology companies have come under in recent years.

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While the prohibited and promoted types of content spelled out in the latest rules echo previous regulations for internet services like online videos, they target a broader swath of content platforms and creators.

The rules encourage producers to create and release content promoting socialist theories set out by President Xi Jinping, as well as content that helps increase the international influence of Chinese culture.

Meanwhile, producers are banned from creating and disseminating illegal content that leaks national secrets or damages the nation’s religious policies, among others. They are ordered to restrict so-called bad content such as exaggerated headlines or ones that could encourage minors to pursue unsafe acts. Platform operators are likely to use human censors and content-monitoring algorithms to weed out illegal or bad content on their platforms, using the new rules as guidelines.

A key development is the mention of algorithms, in an acknowledgment of the role they play in determining which content reaches which users. The rules call on platform operators to ensure that the recommendation models built on algorithms promote what is considered proper content.

“One significant highlight of these new rules is that the era of algorithm regulation is officially coming,” said Zhu Wei, an associate professor at China University of Political Science and Law and deputy director of the university’s Research Center of Communication Law.

Mr. Zhu said it is broadly believed that algorithms, as a part of technology, are neutral. But “algorithms should have values, and they must have the right values. At the same time, algorithms should be rule- and law-abiding,” he said.

The Cyberspace Administration of China didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, authorities have moved to police online speech as Chinese spend more of their time on the internet. Various rules and guidelines have been issued, many supplementing the cybersecurity law that came into force in 2017.

In January, a government-appointed body released guidelines for short video platforms, requiring them to bulk up censorship and vet all content before it is posted. In November, the government released rules that ban online-video platform operators from using deep-learning to create fake news, an effort to address so-called deepfake technology and disinformation.

“The government feels that maybe too much unapproved content is sliding through the cracks” and is trying to address that, said Ben Cavender, Shanghai-based managing director at China Market Research Group.

For companies, it may mean rising costs to beef up its content-monitoring operations. “We should expect to see greater investment both in automated solutions as well as in content-management teams,” Mr. Cavender said.

The government also has toughened its stance on how companies deal with data privacy. Earlier this week, it said some of the country’s biggest tech companies—including Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Xiaomi Corp.—weren’t sufficiently protecting user data.

Write to Yoko Kubota at yoko.kubota@wsj.com

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