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China monitors online chatter as users threaten state hold on the internet

In the offices of China's Communist party newspaper, rows of analysts sit at computer screens poring over data that is stripped off the internet. Every comment made by the 591 million Chinese "netizens" is analyzed at the People's Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Centre, with summaries sent in real time to party leaders. More than ever before, China's rulers are actually listening to their people, reacting quickly to contain potential crises that could threaten one-party control. With its ability to control the internet increasingly challenged, China's Communist party has had to change its game.

The practice of collecting information on its citizens is as old as China itself: the nation's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, maintained a massive network of spies. The Communist party's own journalists have long funneled to party leaders classified reports on what is really happening at ground level. But now, the government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. Opinion-monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the internet. At the same time, the authorities are contracting firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

"The government used to have more power to control the agenda," said a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who requested anonymity because of restrictions on talking to foreign reporters. "But now there is a new approach, to identify the hot spots and try to control the crisis."

The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism. But new leader Xi Jinping warned in June that "winning or losing public support" could decide the party's "survival or extinction", according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party's interests, like political reform. Last month, for example, a woman won compensation for being unjustly imprisoned in a labor camp after her cause was taken up online. Her crime had been to demand punishment for officials she accused of raping her daughter.

Several construction projects have stalled in the face of opposition from netizens: plans for an aluminum processing plant in southern China were cancelled last month after street protests and online outrage.

Netizens have also played a role in exposing official corruption, and experts count more than 170 party officials who have been prosecuted as a result of being exposed online. Every government department, at the central and provincial level, has units devoted to public opinion research, but they tend to function very imperfectly, to produce reports that "justify what my boss is talking about, that it is the right thing", said Victor Yuan Yue, chairman of Horizon Research Consultancy.

In recent years, though, the party has begin to turn to the private sector for public opinion research. "Ten years ago, we never got any commissions from the government for our service," said Yuan. "Today, the fastest-growing sector of our business is commissions from the government."

Horizon is sometimes asked to poll people about a proposed policy change, such as measures to restrict car use in Beijing to cut pollution. It also surveys views on government departments' performance, evaluating what taxpayers think about the tax bureau or how businesses view the bureaucracy involved in registering companies. Only once did a cabinet minister phone up to request an embarrassing poll finding be altered, Yuan said, adding that he politely refused the request.

At People's Daily, algorithms churn out real-time data on what people are talking about online, and daily and weekly reports are published on the hot issues, summarizing the dominant views. Recently, its opinion monitoring centre reported on criticism of a new law threatening penalties for children who failed to visit elderly parents often enough. A few days later, it recorded outrage after property magnate Zeng Chengjie was executed for financial fraud without his daughter being informed. Conducted mainly on Weibo – China's equivalent of Twitter – the online discussion about Zeng drew in around 990,000 netizens.

Anger rose when the court posted on a Weibo account – incorrectly as it turned out – that there was no legal provision requiring criminals to meet with their family members before execution.

Most of the "opinion mining" work carried out by the People's Daily team is for consumption by officials or state-owned enterprises. The monitoring centre advises officials on how to deal with crises – what language to use and how to conduct themselves in public, said the centre's deputy secretary general, Shan Xuegang. Again, most of that advice is conveyed in private, but sometimes it makes its way into the publicly available report, as it did in the furore over the property magnate's execution.

"In the Weibo era, an internet public opinion crisis cannot be handled by evading and dodging," it concluded. "Facing the questions directly, speaking with the facts, convincing people by sincerity is the key to resolve the problem." Law enforcers, it added, needed to respect the law. "Only when the law has the final say, can society have real peace."

There is a similar monitoring unit at Xinhua, while at Remnin University, a team analyses the search terms on Baidu, China's equivalent of Google, to gauge society's mood. Indeed, almost every university in China now has a department devoted to public opinion research.

Even so, the system remains incomplete, especially because Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online. Controls on free speech also complicate the effort enormously.

There are also, of course, limits to what a party-led public opinion unit will publish – and limits too to what the state wants to hear: leaders are not really interested in people's views on political reform or foreign policy, because those are areas where decisions are still made by a small group of officials without regard to public opinion, said one person involved in polling, who declined to be identified for fear it could affect his career.

In the past two years, micro-blogging sites have supplanted state media as the people's main source of news, and become the principal vehicle for the Chinese people to express opinions long suppressed. Tens of millions of messages are published on Weibo every day.

Some views are still censored – posts attempting to organize street protests are almost certain to be removed, as is criticism of senior party leaders.

In a further effort to shape the online narrative, China's government departments have around 60,000 Weibo accounts, while the government also pays people to post favorable comments.

Nevertheless, Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and the founder of the China Digital Times news website, says the party is starting to lose the battle: in the past two years, he said, "politically liberal voices" have dominated the internet in China, as people openly express their views on issues ranging from corruption to free speech, social justice or the environment.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post


New law on customer data protection in China impacting telecom and internet companies

The Rules Regarding the Protection of Personal Information of Telecommunications and Internet Users (the “Rules”) were adopted and announced on July 16, 2013 by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (the “MIIT”), and will take effect on Sept. 1, 2013. Spurred by the booming of the telecom and Internet business in China, the privacy risk that telecommunications and Internet users are faced with on a daily basis has become, unfortunately, greater than ever in recent years. The Rules, as the first regulation specifically formulated to protect the personal information in e-commerce applications, will become a guideline for all regulations under the MIIT regarding the protection of personal information in the field of e-commerce.

Before the announcement of the Rules, personal information protection regulations were never thoroughly discussed or deliberated at a national level in the legislature and were only briefly touched upon in general laws. For example, under the Chinese Tort’s Law, there are very general articles stipulating that people’s privacy interests are subject to protection and any person who infringes the privacy interest of others shall be found liable under the Tort’s Law. Moreover, under the Chinese Criminal Law, staff members in a telecom company who obtain customers’ personal information by using their position, and sell or illegally provide such information to others, may be sentenced to imprisonment of up to two years. Furthermore, whoever illegally obtains the aforesaid information by stealing or any other means may also be subject to such criminal penalty. However, because of the lack of applicable rules and interpretation, it is difficult for individual telecommunications and internet users to seek legal protection when their rights are being violated, and also difficult for e-commerce business operators to take precautions in compliance with the law.

The first general law regarding the protection of personal information in the field of e-commerce is the Decision on Strengthening the Protection of Online Information (the “Decision”), which was adopted by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress at the end of 2012. The Decision has laid out the general principles regarding privacy protection, but the penalties for violating the Decision and the specific duties for related governmental agencies and authorities remain unclear.

Due to the lack of penalties and control, the Decision was never taken into full effect, and day-to-day privacy violations seem to be on the rise in China. For instance, Internet users frequently receive unsolicited mails that are specifically addressed to them as if the senders have full access to their personal information. Often times it is because the telecom and Internet service providers disclosed such information to a third party. With the lack of supervision and law enforcement, the misbehaved service providers may easily get away after selling customer data to third parties.

The government now hopes that the Rules may control the problem and offer better protection to personal information. The principles of the Rules are consistent with that in the Decision, but set forth some regulatory provisions in greater detail. DWT has summarized, as follows, the new development that the Rules will bring about.

Entities subject to the regulation of the Rules

The Rules expressly limit the scope of entities subject to regulation. The Rules only apply to the telecom service providers (the “TSP”) and the Internet content service providers (the “ICP”).

According to relevant laws, TSP refers to entities which provide service by using wired or wireless electromagnetic systems, or photoelectric systems, to transmit, emit or receive speech, text, data, graphics or any other form of information. ICP refers to entities which provide information through the Internet to web users. Thus, for instance, any communication company, e-mail service provider, cloud computing company, or Internet connection service provider may be categorized as a TSP, while the entities running websites of any kind, or otherwise providing information to end users via the Internet, may be categorized as ICPs. Since only the TSP and the ICP are subject to regulation under the Rules, any privacy infringement by individuals or by any non-TSP or non-ICP entity is hereby not protected by the Rules. In other words, under such situations people may only claim their rights under the general laws as introduced above.

Scope of personal information under protection

Under the Rules, “personal information” refers to information collected by the TSP or the ICP during their service that can identify the users, or information regarding the use of service. Such information includes, but is not limited to: names, birth dates, ID numbers, resident addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, passwords and other kinds of information, which alone, or in combination with other information, can identify specific users. Moreover, the time and location of the user using certain service also fall within the “personal information” subject to the protection under the Rules.

Principles regarding the collection and use of personal Information

The principles of “legality, propriety and necessity,” as provided in the Rules regarding the collection and use of the personal information, are exactly the same with that in the Decision. In addition, the Rules provide that the personal information collector shall be responsible for the security of the collected information.

Key requirements regarding the collection and use of personal information

Some of the requirements set forth in the Rules are mere reiterations of the requirement listed in the Decision, including:
Prohibition of collecting or using personal information before obtaining the users’ consent;

Informing the users of the reason, measure and scope of the collection and use of the personal information; and prohibition of divulging, changing, destroying, selling or illegally providing personal information to third parties.

Furthermore, the Rules provide some new requirements to regulate the TSP and the ICP. The ones listed below are especially worth paying attention to:

The TSP and the ICP shall formulate and publish detailed rules regarding the collection and use of personal information, and post them at their service premises or on related websites.

The TSP and the ICP shall not collect any personal information which is not necessary for the furnishing of their service, or use such information for any purposes unrelated to their service, or collect information through fraud, misleading, coercion or any other methods prohibited by law.

The TSP and the ICP shall stop collecting or using the personal information upon termination of service, and shall upon such termination provide the users with an option to cancel their accounts; and

In addition to informing the users of the reason, measure and scope of the collection and use of information as mentioned above, the TSP and the ICP shall also inform the users of the measures used to inquire or change their information, and the consequence of refusing to provide such personal information.

Responsibility to third-party contractors

Currently a lot of the TSP and ICP have outsourced part of their service to third party contractors. In this regard the Rules expressly state that the TSP or ICP shall supervise and manage such contractors and ensure their compliance with the Rules. For example, even if a cloud computing company outsources the cloud-saving service to a third party, this cloud computing company is still obligated to make sure that the collection and use of the customers’ personal information by such third party will not violate the Rules.

Safeguard measures

The Rules have required that the TSP and ICP shall adopt a series of measures to safeguard their users’ personal information, including but not limited to: establishing security management system and internal policies, exercising privilege management, keeping safe storage medium safe, inspecting the information management system, and keeping track of the operation record. Thus, the Rules offer a sufficiently detailed guideline to determine whether the TSP and ICP have established an effective safeguarding system.


Penalties for violation of the Rules shall be limited to warnings and fines. The maximum amount of fine a regulatory administration is allowed to impose will be RMB 30,000. The Rules also provide that any violation thereunder shall be recorded into the Credit Files established and updated by the MIIT, which will also be made public.

End notes

The Rules have made significant progress in protecting the private information of telecommunications and Internet users by setting forth specific rules and policies to regulate the e-commerce market. However, the penalties thereunder are comparatively light considering the amount of damage any violation of the Rules may potentially cause. Thus the Rules alone may not be enough to deter all privacy infringing acts. We hope that in addition to the Rules more laws and regulations imposing civil or criminal liabilities proportional to the amount of damage caused in the field of e-commerce will be drafted so as to provide a clearer guide to e-commerce business operators and customers.


Edward Lehman雷曼法学博士
Managing Director 董事长

LEHMAN, LEE & XU China Lawyers

LEHMAN, LEE & XU is a top-tier Chinese law firm specializing in corporate, commercial, intellectual property, and labor and employment matters. For further information on any issue discussed in this edition of China Internet and E-commerce Lawyers Alert or for all other enquiries, please e-mail us at mail@lehmanlaw.com or visit our website at www.lehmanlaw.com.

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