China wrestles with 'vulgar' web content

Mar 26, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT
Wechat's first AD appears in circle of friends on 26th January, 2015 in Beijing, China.
TPG/Getty Images

China's campaign to monitor and "cleanse" its internet continues this week with a new effort by the country's internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The agency published new guidelines on March 25 outlining prohibited content -- specifically of sexual or vulgar nature -- on WeChat, the country's vastly popular messaging application. 

Known as Weixin in China, WeChat has half a billion users, and is a regular target of the CAC because of its widespread use and the ease with which users can become anonymous and publish content that does not meet the Seven Baselines for internet content (a measure put in place in 2014 by the government to control what is published on the internet). And indeed, the government has made several attempts to de-anonymize web applications like WeChat with regulations such as the one set forth in February requiring internet users on some social media platforms to use their real names when registering accounts. As of March 1, the government said it intended to ban accounts that impersonate people or organizations. The weekend before March 1, some of China's internet giants including Alibaba, Tencent Holdings (which owns WeChat), Baidu, and Sina Weibo deleted over 60,000 online accounts in a purge to comply with those regulations.

But this latest measure from the CAC targets content over people. Though, the two will necessarily be inextricably linked, and the CAC has set forth ramifications for those users who violate the new rules. Reuters reports that "sexually explicit pictures and text including nude photos and erotic animation" are among the now-prohibited types of content across WeChat. Additionally, stories of "one-night stands, wife-swapping, sexual abuse and other harmful information" are no longer allowed. Violators will see their accounts closed for one week following the first infraction, and after four violations will be permanently banned from the app.

The measure appears to be just another cog in the wheel for the Chinese web censorship machine. The use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked sites and services like Facebook is all too common; the government's efforts to prohibit users from accessing certain sites -- particularly U.S.-based social media -- has driven a massive market for proxy access. And the Chinese government itself has a mixed relationship with social media; in September of last year, the Communist Party launched official accounts on WeChat and another hugely popular messaging app Yixin. Reports detailed that the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee urged party members to subscribe to the accounts in order to make the party's presence more active on the internet. (Of course, the party's participation in this regard immediately triggered rumors that it would be using social media to perpetuate smear campaigns like that of the Free Tibet movement and to squash the speech of other users as it did when it very publicly tried to squelch the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square across the web last June.) This latest move to remove sexual or "vulgar" content will likely continue to drive the masses to use VPNs -- something the government has been looking to squash as well. After all, if there is one thing internet service providers know to be true, it's that porn is impossible to block.