Skip to main content

New rules for mobile IM in China: Will it hamper innovation?

By Zoe Li, CNN
updated 4:49 AM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
WeChat's is used for chatting, ordering taxis, sharing photos and more.
WeChat's is used for chatting, ordering taxis, sharing photos and more.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China issues new rules for uses and providers of mobile IM services
  • Commentator: "This is just the latest set of rules to remind everyone who's in charge"
  • Will the increased control of mobile use hamper mobile innovation in China?

(CNN) -- China's 700 million smartphone users will no longer be able to share stories about politics without official approval, according to new regulations announced by authorities on Thursday, which took immediate effect.

The State Internet Information Office released a 10-point document detailing new rules for instant messaging (IM) service providers and users. It is the latest move in an official campaign to "clean up the online environment and rein in rumormongers," according to Chinese media.

Although the rules apply to all IM service providers, they are widely seen as targeting WeChat, the immensely popular mobile app that allows people to share text, videos, photos and audio recording with multiple users at once.

Public accounts on any mobile IM platform will also need to register with authorities using the real names of the owners. There are 5.8 million public accounts in China on subscription-based mobile apps, including celebrities, businesses and other organizations, according to state media Xinhua.

On China: Government and tech
China Mobile launches iPhone

The rules also stipulate that, while the accounts of professional news providers are allowed to post about politics, all other accounts must obtain prior approval from authorities to post -- or repost -- political news.

Dominating the digital

"This is just the latest set of rules to remind everyone who's in charge and provide yet another legal and verbal framework for silencing troublesome voices," says Jeremy Goldkorn, commentator on Chinese Internet and founder of Danwei.com.

A similar set of regulations was imposed on users of Sina Weibo two years ago, the micro-blogging platform commonly referred to as China's Twitter.

Prominent Weibo users were later detained or prosecuted, on charges both related and unrelated to their online activities.

Lately, "rumor mongers" have become the target of the official online clean-up. In April, Qin Zhihui, who goes by "Qinhuohuo" online, was sentenced to two years in prison for spreading false information on Weibo.

"After the takedown of the Big Vs (verified accounts with huge follower numbers) on Weibo last year, I more or less gave up posting anything to the Chinese Internet," says Goldkorn.

"The government has successfully brought Weibo under control and has become the dominant voice there. I have no doubt that they will succeed with WeChat," he adds.

Another user of a popular WeChat account on current affairs said that the new regulation "will definitely impact what I'm going to post in the future.

"It's quite obvious now, other public accounts are definitely going to be more cautious about republishing political news because no one knows how strongly the rules will be enforced. And the term 'political news' is not quite clearly defined. We'll wait to see how things go."

A balancing act

To many China watchers, the new regulations that target mobile use has come as no surprise.

The three-year-old WeChat, owned by Tencent holdings, is unlike any other mobile app. It has taken China by storm, with a monthly average of 398.5 million users who rely on the app to get all sorts of things done -- from booking taxis to sending virtual hongbao (customary gift money). It also extends into e-commerce, gaming, socializing and posting pictures.

"WeChat has turned into the extended operating system of China's mobile millions," said CNN's Kristie Lu Stout, a technology enthusiast and host of "On China."

A Tencent spokesperson said that it "respects related government policies in all markets" where the company operates.

"And Tencent always devotes to create a healthy and secure online environment for our users. We'll take measures against offensive and abusive activities to show compliance with relevant regulations. We welcome users to report such instance to us via online channel."

READ: No longer just a factory, China is a mobile leader

Staying in the race

With its seamless functions, the China-developed app is fast gaining ground on its Silicon Valley rivals, such as WhatsApp. But now that the government is showing an ironclad crackdown on smartphone app freedoms, how can Chinese mobile developers stay competitive on the global stage?

"This is Beijing's dilemma. The government wants to develop the Internet to drive innovation and economic growth, while keeping tabs on any potential political risk bubbling up online," says Lu Stout.

Danwei's Goldkorn doesn't feel that increased government regulation will have any lasting impact on innovation.

"The social media and news aspect of WeChat is trivial compared to WeChat's personal messaging function that is replacing SMS text messages, its taxi booking and payment system, and wealth management product, and the WeChat-enabled use of QR codes for marketing. This is a highly innovative fusion of a variety of different digital services, and it's beautifully engineered.

"Of course the intellectual repression caused by China's censorious media, telecom and education systems does hinder innovation, but it does not destroy it."

He adds that he sees workarounds to the regulations should users want to disseminate subversive materials: "The point of the rules is not to delete every single vaguely problematic posting, but rather to stop public opinion from being swayed by non-official voices on the Internet."

CNN's Dayu Zhang contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
updated 1:45 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
updated 10:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
updated 8:57 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
updated 11:12 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
updated 1:13 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
updated 5:08 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
updated 12:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT