How China is tightening its grip on messaging apps

The Chinese government seems to be further tightening its grip on messaging apps like WeChat. This week, the State Internet Information Office announced a new regulation that imposes restrictions on users of the services.

Popularity of messaging apps in China

Messaging apps are a huge deal in China. TenCent’s WeChat service is the dominant player, with somewhere in the region of 400 million users, although there are competitors, both Chinese (with Alibaba pushing its Laiwang service) and international (such as Line and KakaoTalk – more on those later).

What are the new rules?

On Thursday, the State Internet Information Office announced its latest regulation, which it announced would “help build a clean cyberspace”. The regulation applies to “public” and “official” accounts on messaging platforms – that is, accounts to which other users can subscribe.

Users of these public or official accounts are subject to new requirements. In particular, they must:

  1. register with their real name – it goes without saying that the absence of anonymity will have a fairly serious impact on the kind of content that users will share via these accounts;
  2. commit to complying with law and regulation (including the somewhat broad requirement to comply with “the socialist system”); and
  3. ensure the accuracy of the information provided.

Putting the new regulation in context

Why this account type in particular? The answer, of course, is that these public or official accounts enable a kind of “multicasting” of information, from one user to many, in a way that unicasting (one to one) accounts do not. It is this level of publishing or broadcast that the Chinese government seems to be most concerned about.

This development also has to be considered in light of the news that China has blocked the services of two of the world’s biggest messaging app services: Japan’s Line and Korea’s Kakaotalk.

Although that move was focused specifically on those foreign services, as part of “efforts to fight terrorism”, it is now very clear that messaging apps are, and will continue to be, in the firing line for the regulators tasked with maintaining China’s control of internet communications.

This story is also a snapshot of how regulation is wrestling with these relatively new but enormously popular forms of communication – and not just in China but across the region, where we have already seen countries like Vietnam step up their control of the internet.

Matt Pollins

Author: Matt Pollins

Matt is an international technology, media and telecoms lawyer and Head of Commercial and TMT at CMS in Singapore. He supports clients across Asia-Pacific. You can contact Matt via the "Contact" page. Views expressed on Connected Asia are those of the author. Nothing here constitutes legal advice or creates a lawyer-client relationship.

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