China Tightens Control of Internet Chat Groups and Official Accounts


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The Cyberspace Administration of China (“CAC”) has recently released the Provisions on the Administration of Information Services Provided through Chat Groups on the Internet (“Provisions on Chat Groups”) and the Provisions on the Administration of Information Services Provided through Official Accounts of Internet Users (“Provisions on Official Accounts”) to regulate all instant messaging chat groups and official accounts (“Regulations”).

Both Provisions are formulated according to the Cyber Security Law of the PRC and effective from 8 October 2017. All online chat group service providers in the PRC, including the giant platforms such as Tencent’s WeChat and QQ, Sina’s Weibo, Alibaba’s Alipay Chat and Baidu’s Tieba and users are now regulated by these new Regulations.

Some key features of the two Provisions are as
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follows:

Provisions on Chat Groups

Article 2 of the Provisions on Chat Groups provides the following definitions :-

(1) “chatgroups on the internet” refers to the cyberspace established by users through internet websites and mobile internet applications for online information exchange by chat groups;

(2) “providers of information services through chat groups on the internet” refers to the platforms on which information services through chat groups on the internet are provided; and

(3) “users of information services through chat groups on the internet” refers to the parties including the initiators, administrators and members of chat groups.

Article 6 of the Provisions on Chat Groups provides that any party providing information services through chat groups on the internet should verify information about the users' real identity. The Article requires the service providers to verify the identity of group members via mobile telephone numbers, identity card numbers and / or other methods. However, they are also required to take necessary measures to protect the service users / group members’ personal information.

According to Article 11, the party that offers information services through chat groups on the internet may take measures according to the law or as agreed in the users’ agreement to cope with a user's wrongdoings, such as issuing a warning and requesting corrections, stopping them from releasing information on a temporary basis, or closing down their chat groups, etc; in addition, it could, according to the law or as agreed in the users’ agreement, take management measures, including degrading the credit ratings, suspending the management authority and disqualifying the user from organizing a chat group, prevent such user from acting as chat group organizer and manager, etc.

Provisions on Official Accounts

Article 2 of the Provisions on Official Accounts defines:

(1) “information services provided through official accounts of internet users” as the services of publishing such information as text, pictures, audio and video to the public in the form of official accounts of registered users via such network platforms as internet websites and applications;

(2) “providers of information services through official accounts of internet users” as the network platforms on which services including registration and use of the official accounts of internet users are provided; and

(3) “users of information services through official accounts of internet users” as the institutions or individuals registering and using, or operating official accounts of internet users to provide information publishing services.

Article 7 states that any party rendering information services via official accounts of internet users should set a cap on the number of official accounts registered and owned by a single user on each platform; where a single user registers for multiple accounts on a platform, or operates a number of accounts applied for in the name of a conglomerate, a corporation, an alliance or otherwise, it should be required to submit basic information, including the account registrant, its business scope and checklist of all accounts it has had.

Breaches of these Regulations and Penalties

In the event of breach of these Regulations, any other law and / or the users agreement between the service provider and user, the service provider should under Article 11 of the Provisions on Chat Groups take the necessary steps to suspend and / or disqualify such user from managing and / or organizing chat groups through a credit rating and blacklisting system required to be set up under these new Regulations. In more serious situations, the service providers are to blacklist rules breakers, unregister them and take measures to ensure that they are not allowed to re-register themselves. Service providers are also required to report such rules breakers to the authority. The onus is therefore on the service providers to ensure compliance with the new Regulations and report to the authority.

Service providers should also have professional and technical capabilities to ensure that these new Regulations are complied with pursuant to Article 5 of the Provisions on Chat Groups. For the authority’s monitoring purposes, all service providers and users are required to cooperate with the authority (whether through technical support or otherwise).

Take-away Points

In view of the strong influence of social media discussions, the PRC has now taken a stringent approach to regulate chat groups on the internet. These Regulations are wide ranging and do not merely affect the established platforms but would also affect any party providing information services through chat groups on the internet regardless of scale or origin. It appears to have already affected WhatsApp operating in the PRC.

It is important to ensure that these new Regulations are complied with by all service provides operating on the Mainland as it is unclear what the penalties would be for any breach of these new Regulations. The Provisions do not specify the exact penalty in the event of breach, but leaves room for the authority to impose penalties “accordingly”.

AUTHOR: Angela Wang & Co

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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