China aims to rein in mobile messaging apps with new regulations

China is tightening control over mobile messaging services with new rules that limit their role in spreading news.

The regulations will affect WeChat, a messaging service with close to 400 million active users that is one of China’s most popular apps. The rules specifically target so-called “public accounts” that users such as scholars, celebrities, and businesses can set up to reach a wide audience.

Under the new regulations, only news agencies and other groups with official approval can publish whatever the government considers political news via public accounts. “All other public accounts that have not been approved cannot release or reprint political news,” the regulations said.

Users of the instant messaging services will also have to register with their official IDs, and agree to follow relevant laws. To enforce the regulations, the instant messaging services can issue warnings, stop users from posting, close a user’s account, and even report activity to relevant authorities.

China says the regulations will help protect its citizens. They are part of a long history of the government’s censorship of online services and campaigns to crack down on what it calls online rumors. In some cases, authorities have jailed users it found to be spreading fake news.

China is particularly worried about mobile chatting apps. Last November, the government called them a potential threat to national stability because they are a vehicle for the rapid spread of information.

Following Thursday’s announcement, Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant behind WeChat, said it supported the new regulations.

“We have conducted extensive research, and found that the regulations mainly intend to stop rumors and harmful information from spreading on the Internet,” the company said in an online posting.

Earlier this year, Tencent shut down over 100 public accounts, and deleted close to 5,000 articles on WeChat found circulating rumors. The company is also introducing new systems to control harmful content and spam on the app.

China’s online censorship has been expanding this year, resulting in the blocking of all Google services as well as some access to other mobile messaging services including Japan’s Line and South Korea’s KakaoTalk.

It’s not clear why China has targeted the services now. But a local terrorist attack in May prompted the country to launch another campaign to stop online rumors. Police later arrested over 200 suspected militants, who had been relying on instant messaging services to organize, according to the nation’s state-controlled press.

Thursday’s regulations repeat what China has done in the past to control social networking sites in the country, said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.

“We’ve seen this in the microblog space, and we’re increasingly seeing it in the mobile messaging space,” he said.

The new regulations probably won’t derail China’s WeChat, given that the restrictions only target public accounts, Natkin added.

“The majority of users use WeChat to communicate with their friends or business circles,” he said. “If certain news feeds get dropped from the platform, it might become slightly less interesting to users. But overall people are using WeChat less for news.”

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