The case of a maritime official who was fired last year after a video appeared online in which he tried to assault a young girl was hailed as a triumph of citizen justice. New rules for online video-sharing websites issued by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) have raised concerns that such videos may not be permitted in the future, and that the relatively free expression allowed on China’s internet may be reined in. These concerns are overblown.
According to the new rules, any content that harms the image of the police, army, military police or the judiciary is banned, as are videos relating to the torture of prisoners or criminal suspects. The latter is thought to be the reason for the recent blocking of US-based YouTube: In March, users uploaded videos apparently showing a man being beaten by Chinese security forces in Tibet.
The rules also require websites to have individual broadcast licenses for any foreign films or television shows.
But these regulations are not that different from existing SARFT rules – or from the current practices of many websites. The announcement therefore needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Video-sharing sites are already required to have a license to operate and, in theory, aren’t allowed to host content that violates copyright or is considered morally objectionable. The reality is fuzzier, but major sites are generally strict about what content they allow.
That’s because it’s not simply about sites hoping to keep their licenses; they are out to make money, too. Their revenue comes from advertising and many advertisers don’t want their brands sullied by association with copyright infringement. Advertisers also prefer to appear next to high-quality content that they see as complimenting their brands. All this gives sites strong financial incentives to keep close tabs on uploaded videos.
Based on past experience – the requirement that sites obtain licenses led to similar hand-wringing – the new rules may see some tightening aimed at the most obvious offending content and some videos operating in a copyright gray area. However, most user-generated content will remain unscathed.
It may look like the government has strengthened online controls. But, in the face of any censorship, users should ask whether it is the government or the video-sharing sites that are to blame.