In yet another move to crack down on anti-government sentiment in society, the Standing Committee of China’s top legislature passed a revised cybersecurity law on Monday that has once again generated controversy worldwide.
The third and final draft of this law emerged at end of the latest session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing. In a country that is already infamous for its internet control, the law will add further restrictions to personal internet use, increase the government’s internet monitoring power, and directly affect business, service, and education sectors.
Perhaps most significantly, the law will require “critical information infrastructure operators” to store users’ “personal information and other important business data” that is related to the firm’s operations in China. The law is vague about what qualifies as “critical information infrastructure” and “important business data” meaning that it could potentially require numerous international companies to store their data on servers within Chinese borders, granting Beijing unprecedented, easy access to that information.
In August, after reviewing an earlier draft of the regulation, 46 global business groups penned a joint-letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urging Beijing to revise the controversial law. Instead, the final version of the law makes a few changes, but remains inherently the same as before. “Despite widespread international concern from corporations and rights advocates for more than a year, Chinese authorities pressed ahead with this restrictive law without making meaningful changes,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) China director Sophie Richardson.
HRW worries that the law could also be used by the government in order to further control online discussion, noting that Article 12 of the law has undergone a number of troubling changes during the revision process:
In addition to prohibiting individuals from using the Internet to “endanger national security, advocate terrorism or extremism, [or] propagate ethnic hatred and discrimination,” article 12 of the second draft also prohibits them from “overthrowing the socialist system” and “fabricating or spreading false information to disturb economic order.” The third draft adds to this list, banning the use of the Internet “to incite separatism or damage national unity.” These crimes, some codified in criminal law, are regularly used to punish and jail peaceful activists and can result in lengthy sentences.
The group also adds that Article 46 of the final draft may encourage further self-censorship on social media by prohibiting individuals or groups from establishing “websites and communication groups” that are used for “spreading criminal methods” or “other information related to unlawful and criminal activities” — once again, broad terms that Chinese authorities have used in the past to put activists in prison.
At the same time, the law will require a range of online companies, such as instant messaging services, to institute real-name requirements on their users, further stoking fears of greater self-censorship.
Chinese web users are already subject to the most sophisticated internet censorship system in the world. Last year, China ranked dead last in a Freedom House survey of internet freedom in 88 countries around the globe (North Korea wasn’t one of the countries surveyed).
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 7, 2016
According to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, this third draft of the law aims to “safeguard sovereignty on cyberspace, national security and the rights of citizens” by taking measures to “monitor, defend and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources, protecting key information infrastructure from attack,intrusion, disturbance and damage.”
The Guardian reports that Yang Heqing, a member of China’s NPC Standing Committee, added that China is “one of the countries that faces the greatest internet security risks,” thus the need for the law, protecting against threats, both internal and external.
It comes as Chinese President and newly-proclaimed “core” leader Xi Jinping strives to consolidate his power halfway through his 10-year term while also stamping out dissent online. Last month, one young activist disappeared after posting on social media about his plans to wear a “Xitler” shirt in public on China’s National Day.
On Chinese social media, discussion of the cybersecurity law has been muted. One Weibo post from China’s official Xinhua News Agency carries only 21 comments with most netizens voicing their support for the new law, one Weibo user even writes that it’s “not strict enough.”
The law doesn’t go into effect until 2017, so just a friendly reminder to watch your internet presence.
By Abby Ordillas