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China Tightens Control Of Online Group Chat Ahead Of Annual Party Congress

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Organizing chat groups on WeChat, one of the most common forms of multiparty digital communications in China, could soon be a high risk activity. China’s Cyberspace Administration issued new rules last week tightening control over WeChat groups and other such digital platforms, in a move that could make WeChat group chat organizers legally liable for any false information disseminated within their groups.

The new rules will be effective October 8, just ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which begins on Oct 18. The week-long gathering of China’s top leaders will see the retirement of the majority of current members of China’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and reveal the composition of the country’s new leadership.

The new rules apply to online chat groups on popular communications services WeChat, QQ, Weibo, Momo, Alipay and online commenting threads. The rules apply to all users including group chat organizers, group chat managers and members, according to a statement posted on the Cyberspace Administration’s website.

The rules require Internet service providers to verify the identity of their users and keep records of group chats for at least six months. Online platforms are also required to manage the chat groups by category, limit the maximum number of users for a group, as well as establish a credit system for users in the groups.

Organizers and managers of chat groups will be held accountable for false information disseminated via their groups. Groups operating illegally may be warned, or be asked to cease operation. For managers of groups deemed illegal, their rights to manage chat groups will be suspended or revoked. Severe offenders will be added to a blacklist and lose the ability to create and manage future group chats.

In response to the proposed new rules, state media organizations have taken steps to curb the usage of social media and online platforms by their staffers. In an internal memo distributed by a state media organization reviewed by China Money Network, employees are prohibited from making comments on seven topics in WeChat group chats.

The banned topics include politically sensitive topics; materials from "internal" memos; information about pornography, drugs and explosions; news related to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan that hasn’t been published by state media; news and materials related to the military; information about state confidential documents; and rumors of any sort.

Rules for online forums and WeChat official accounts are similar to online chat groups. For online forums, the new rules specifically forbid illegal sales of goods and false marketing to the public. For company owning several official WeChat accounts, the company needs to provide information including its business scope and all of its accounts to local Internet watchdogs.

China’s most recent moves to tighten digital information dissemination include a rule to require users to post comments with their real names for online news stories. The rule was introduced by the China’s Cyberspace Administration last month and requires all comments to be reviewed by website operators before they can appear online.

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