China Begins ‘Rectification’ of Mobile Browsers to Crack Down on Information ‘Chaos’

This picture taken on October 18, 2020 shows people looking at their phones as they sit inside a coffee shop in the 798 art district in Beijing. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the chief online censorship agency of the authoritarian Communist regime, announced on Monday that it will begin a “rectification” of mobile Internet browsers to crack down on the “chaos” of uncensored online information currently available to Chinese users.

Reuters reported on Monday that the CAC set a very tight deadline of November 9 for eight major mobile browser providers to complete a “self-examination” and get with the “rectification” program, or else:

The problems include the spreading of rumours, the use of sensationalist headlines and the publishing of content that violates the core values of socialism, it said in a statement.

“For some time, mobile browsers have grown in an uncivilised way … and have become a gathering place and amplifier for dissemination of chaos by ‘self-media’,” the CAC said, referring to independently operated social media accounts, many of which publish news.

“After the rectification, mobile browsers that still have outstanding problems will be dealt with strictly according to laws and regulations until related businesses are banned.”

“Rectification” is a very loaded word in China. It usually involves a large number of people vanishing into black prisons or getting buried in unmarked graves.

According to Reuters, telecom giant Huawei immediately announced strict new controls for “self-media” or “we-media” accounts — in other words, individual social media users. The other browser manufacturers listed in the CAC announcement, including browsers owned by massive companies like Tencent and Alibaba, declined to comment.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) saw the mobile browser crackdown as an extension of the tighter speech controls China put in place at the beginning of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.

The SCMP added the disturbing observation that Western social media companies like Facebook and Twitter also stepped up their controversial efforts to control “disinformation” during the virus outbreak. Freedom House warned of a sharp decline of Internet freedom around the world due to the pandemic in its annual report, published earlier this month.

The CAC said it wanted to control annoyances such as “excessive pop-ups” that disrupt the Internet experience and “gimmicky articles that titillate rather than inform,” but the real target appears to be those individual “self-media accounts” and their propensity for posting information that “violates core socialist values.” 

Pushing browser companies to go after self-media users, under the threat of stern punishment by the central government, is likely to result in a broad automatic ban against individuals unless they apply for some type of certification. Not even a gigantic company like Huawei could police everything people are writing and reading on its browsers, but CAC literally instructed the browser makers to take responsibility as “editor-in-chief” for everything their users post. This directive has dire implications for the many users of Chinese smartphones who are not citizens of China.

Another “problem” Chinese censors are eager to solve is the growing use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to bypass the “Great Firewall” and view websites forbidden by the Communist government. It is entirely possible that the “rectification” of mobile browsers will include changes that make it harder to use them with VPN software to access banned foreign websites. A curious incident in early October involved the launch of a new Chinese browser called Tuber that appeared to make it easier for users to bypass the Great Firewall but also included tracking software that made it look suspiciously like a trap. Tuber was abruptly and inexplicably pulled from app stores soon after it was released.

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