They Got the Same Shit Over There That We Got Here – Stupid Internet Law

May 23, 2012

Readers of this blog are already quite familiar with so-called “Real ID” or “Real Name” rules in China. These refer to regulations mandating that certain Net activities, such as posting to and writing comments on a microblog, are only done by folks who have duly signed up with the platform operator using legal ID (i.e. a China ID card).

Why do we have these laws? In China, it can mostly be explained with the magic word “stability.” The reasoning is that without some curbs on online content, social stability might suffer. Most foreigners I talk to understand this from a political speech perspective but fail to see the other aspects of these regulations.

Consider the recent campaigns against online rumor-mongering. Again, this push can partly be explained with a discussion about political speech. But that’s not the whole story. There are many other kinds of online rumors that the legislators consider dangerous, such as unsubstantiated information about food quality and environmental dangers. The idea here is that if false information about these issues is spread online, this could damage the economy and harm social stability.

What do these rules against anonymous posts/comments look like? Here’s some language from a draft regulation:

A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.

All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

Fairly standard stuff, although it’s drafted horribly; no way for site operators to verify contact information, so everyone would just end up lying. That aside, which China government agency came up with this? MIIT? MOFCOM? MOC?

Don’t know? Well, no surprise, that was a trick question. The draft legislation, called the “Internet Protection Act,” is actually the brain child of Republican lawmakers in the New York State legislature. No, really, and trying to figure out why they have proposed such a measure tells us something about why governments favor these types of rules.

Why would New York Republicans favor something that is similar to China laws designed, in part, to control online content? Here’s one possibility:

A new bill called the Internet Protection Act would give people the ability to request that disparaging, anonymous posts be removed from websites owned by New York-based companies in an effort to stop cyberbullying.

“While the Internet is a wonderful resource for social networking, sadly it can also be used to anonymously bring harm to others,” said Assemblyman Dean Murray, R-East Patchogue.

[ . . . ]

The measure would require these websites to have either a toll-free phone number or e-mail address for victims of cyberbullying to contact.

[ . . . ]

Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Scoharie, co-sponsor of the bill, said the internet is akin to the “wild west: almost anything goes.” He asked, “How do we take a resource that is so beneficial and make sure it is used properly? Make sure we are civilized as we conduct ourselves in the use of that resource?”

Right. So it’s all about cyberbullying, making sure that online conduct is “civilized.” Sounds a lot like the preambles to some of the China legislation, which calls for proper regulation of the Internet for the benefit of society, blah blah blah.

By the way, cyberbullying is, according to The God of Knowledge Wikipedia, “the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner. As it has become more common in society, particularly among young people, legislation and awareness campaigns have arisen to combat it.”

You might have heard one of those stories about a distraught kid who, after being humiliated on Facebook, drowned himself/herself in a toilet or drank a can of paint thinner. Cyberbullying. I guess those Republicans are just looking out for kids in New York, right?

Then again:

In addition to cracking down on cyber-bullying, the bill also prevents people from posting anonymous criticism of local businesses. Too often, rival businesses will post negative and false posts to hurt their competition. With more and more people turning to online reviews, it is important to ensure that the posted information, good or bad, is from actual customers and not rival competitors.

Hmm. Criticism of businesses. Sounds a lot like the kind of rumor-mongering that Chinese rules are designed to stop. But hey, at least there’s no political component to all this.

Right? Well, you probably know what’s coming next:

Finally, the legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent’s reputation by using the anonymity of the Web. By removing these posts, this bill will help to ensure that there is more accurate information available to voters on their prospective candidates, giving them a better assessment of the candidates they have to choose from.

And let’s not forget our old friend Assemblyman Murray:

Murray admitted to being a victim of derogatory website posts two years ago during his re-election campaign. An anonymous source posted on multiple websites that Murray committed acts of domestic violence against his ex-wife. The anonymous posts also said Murray’s son was hiding from his father because he was being abused.

“These comments were absolutely horrible and unfortunately if you Google them now you’ll still be able to pull up a couple of the comments,” said Murray.

Interesting. So the legislation would, in addition to dealing with cyberbullying, also help protect businesses and politicians. Sounds like a great way to ensure social and political stability and foster a more harmonious society, doesn’t it?

OK, before you get too excited, this New York legislation is a stunt that will never pass. Moreover, it looks like it would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so there’s that little hurdle to overcome. If you use New York-based sites, I wouldn’t worry too much.

Last point. I am not in any way making an equivalence argument, saying that somehow the U.S., or U.S. law, is comparable to China Net rules. At the same time, I’m not commenting on the normative issues here at all (although the post title should give you a clue about my opinion).

I did, however, want to point out that this type of legislation is not only making headway in other parts of the world, but also that it isn’t just about political speech. As social media creeps into many facets of our lives, governments are struggling with proper regulation. Courts in China, for example, have been inundated with online copyright infringement and defamation claims in recent years. These days, all one has to do is refer to a public figure as a racist xenophobe in a blog post, and the lawsuit threats begin immediately. Hey, if the shoe fits . . . but I digress.

There are obvious benefits to open online debate, but there are also downsides, including tortious acts. China is not the only government trying to figure out how to strike the right balance.

8 thoughts on “They Got the Same Shit Over There That We Got Here – Stupid Internet Law

  1. Hua Qiao

    I was with you all the way up to the last sentence. China is in no way trying to strike a balance. If they were, you would not have the plethora of “he cha” that aggressive bloggers must have with security officers.

    Nor would you have the weibo posts stricken for reasons that have nothing to do with any well intended policing of the internet. Nor would you have the rampant supression of baidu searches for innocuous terms that bear no relation to pornography, food safety, etc.

    Remember, today’s rumor is tomorrow’s news. Unless of course you are in a country where not only does the government shape public opinion, it insists on its own version of reality.

    1. Stan Post author

      Just because you don’t like policy/practice doesn’t mean that there isn’t a balance. Remember that things could be much more draconian, such as an outlaw of social media or a block on all foreign news media (used to be a lot more of that, in fact, before the tech for keyword and page blocking became available). For that matter, enforcement of Real ID rules could be a hell of a lot more strict than it is now.

      1. Hua Qiao

        Not buying the argument. It’s a perverted use of the word balance. Balance in what way? To allow only voices that toe the Party line? While i have no statistics, I think most would agree that the predominant use of such censorship is for political purpose and not protection against slander or cyber bullying.

        1. Stan Post author

          Of course there’s a balance. Think of the speech that IS allowed and the information that CAN be gathered online here. Content policies could be much worse than they are.

          I don’t think cyberbullying has anything to do with China regs (NY either). But is everything here “political”? Depends on how you define that term. If content policies prohibit spreading of unsubstantiated rumors about food safety problems, because of social stability concerns, is that political? What about environmental issues? Pornography? If “political” is equated with “social stability” then that captures the vast majority of issues.

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    Well I have some sympathy, the use for example of proxy servers to disguise ownership of libelous websites, to send out mass emails and to cover tracks by the wicked, perverse and mischief makers out there is a nuisance. The Internet has given freedoms, but also allowed harassment and cyberbullying to a degree that no-one would have dared attempt in the good old days of print media and sufficient libel and management laws. Instead it’s a free for all where “freedom of speech” has been subverted to mean I can say any damn thing I like about someone regardless of whether it’s true or not. Then I can hide behind aliases and proxies to protect me.
    In short, the regulatory environment is not sufficient. In time, the Internet will become less free as a result. But it’s the cyberbullies and proponents of so-called “free speech” that is leading us this way, and no doubt they’ll be the first and loudest to complain. Human Nature I guess.
    Personally I sometimes feel that all the Internet really did was give a loud voice to the inadequate.

  3. D

    I have been able to use weibo without registering with an ID. I believe it’s possible to use it freely without an ID as the number of fake users are numerous. But you cannot be certified as VIP unless using an authentic ID number. Basically for those prominent users, the control is also strict. But if you only have 200 followers, they don’t care that much.

  4. S.K. Cheung

    This was a thought-provoking post. I’d say that most reasonable people would support restrictions on the anonymous veil currently afforded those who engage in cyberbullying and rumour-mongering. As you say, the trick is to find the balance where you can curb the things you don’t want while still allowing “legitimate” free speech, whatever that is.

    In this case, “balance”, like beauty, is strictly in the eyes of the beholder. What seems balanced to the CCP will probably appear draconian to the average American. That’s to be expected. WHat I’d be more interested in is how the CCP’s version of “balance” is perceived by the average PRC netizen.

    1. Stan Post author

      What I mean by “balance” is that the government chose a point somewhere with policy that took into account issues on both sides. To me, “balance” does not mean that the government is treating each constituency equally. Possible that wasn’t clear in my post.