China wants to build a credit score that dings online chat group users for their political views

Watching you.
Watching you.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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China’s top internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), released new rules (link in Chinese) that govern who can say what in instant messaging chat groups.

The rules, announced yesterday (Sept. 7), require internet companies to establish credit rating systems for chat group users, and provide services to them in accordance with their credit scores. Those who violate Chinese laws and regulations will see their credit scores lowered and their cases reported to authorities—exactly what many feared (paywall) would happen when China started pushing for the creation of  a “social credit” system two years ago.

The new rules are the latest example of China’s tightening grip over cyberspace in the run up to a crucial Communist Party meeting in mid-October. In July, the Chinese government cracked down on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many Chinese internet users rely on to access banned foreign sites. Last month, the CAC released new rules to expand real-name registration to online communities and discussion forums, effectively killing anonymity on the Chinese internet.

China also enforced a broad cybersecurity law in June that lists forbidden topics on the Chinese internet. Those include anything that endangers “national security, national honor, and interests” or “subverts national sovereignty.” 

A 2016 study from Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, showed that censorship on WeChat primarily occurs in group chats rather than one-on-one chats—often without the users themselves even noticing that their chats have been scrubbed.

An unidentified CAC official said in a press conference (link in Chinese) yesterday that the chat group services covered in the new rules include major Chinese platforms such as WeChat, QQ, Sina Weibo, Baidu Post Bar, Alipay, and dating app Momo.

Alipay, a popular third-party payment app from e-commerce giant Alibaba, already has a social-credit system in place, while rival company Tencent is also developing a similar credit-score system for users on its platforms WeChat and QQ. It is unclear whether the two companies’ own credit schemes will be worked into the credit system under the CAC’s proposal.

Ant Financial, an Alibaba-affiliated company which runs Alipay, and Tencent didn’t reply to queries for comment.

The new rules also require chat group service providers to verify the identities of those who establish and run chat groups. “Whoever owns the group should be responsible, and whoever runs the group should be responsible,” the CAC official said at the news conference.

Chat group administrators who violate the rules will be barred from establishing new chat groups and their authorization to manage existing groups will be suspended. Service providers must also keep records of group chats for no less than six months, and establish a “black list” of users who have “serious violations of [Chinese] laws and regulations.”

The CAC released a separate set of rules (link in Chinese) yesterday stipulating that internet companies establish credit systems and blacklists for individuals, companies, and news organizations which run online public accounts.