SHANGHAI — China appears to be tightening its already firm grip over online publishing and content.
A digital content partnership between Alibaba and Disney, as well as Apple’s iTunes digital media store are currently offline in China, only months after each launched on the Mainland. An Alibaba spokesman said the DisneyLife channel is down for a service upgrade and Apple did not respond to requests for comment on its Apple Entertainment business. But there is speculation China is implementing its new Regulation for the Management of Online Publishing Services, which went into effect in March.
The new regulation, the wording of which is both vague and wide-ranging, ostensibly tightens controls on online content, including original or adapted images, games, animation, comics, audio recordings and video.
Previously, foreign companies were able to publish such material so long as they entered into a partnership with a local partner, but the new rules meant that domestic companies who cooperate with foreign companies needed to seek approval from government regulators, practice self-censorship and submit to local government monitoring and annual inspections.
The broad nature of the new laws left many China-watchers unsure about how they might be applied, though these recent developments leave Tompkins International Consulting principal Michael Zakkour with little doubt that we are seeing the first high-profile victims of the new regulations.
“I don’t want to make any assumptions about how the new law will be applied in the long-term, but there is no doubt it was used here, and used in a hammerlike fashion,” he said.
Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a research firm tracking Chinese media, also sees the taking offline of DisneyLife and Apple Entertainment as due to the new regulations, though he is quick to say that there should be little surprise about this given China’s history of Internet and content suppression.
“Strict regulation of online content, especially foreign content, is not new. The Great Firewall has been in construction since the earliest days of the Chinese Internet in the Nineties. While new digital formats such as blogs and online video are often left lightly regulated when they first appear, China’s content regulators inevitably impose stricter controls once the new formats become popular,” he said.
“The takedown of DisneyLife and Apple Entertainment is merely the latest example of this.”
What is most striking about this early use of the new regulations is the way that it seems to be targeting major players both domestic (Alibaba) and international (Disney and Apple). Both Disney and Apple are well-established in China, with the former set for the opening of a $5.5 billion theme park in Shanghai this June — its first park in Mainland China.
“There are two big takeaways: China will welcome foreign products and companies but are less willing to accept the digital content that they produce. So Shanghai Disney is OK, but DisneyLife isn’t. Apple Stores and phones are okay, but books, music and apps are not,” Zakkour said.
“The shutdowns of both services prove, if there was ever any doubt, no content provider is above the Chinese regulations,” added Paul Haswell, a Hong Kong-based partner at technology-focused law firm Pinsent Masons.
Haswell also has a word of warning for other foreign companies, be they media outlets, brands or other content providers, saying no one is immune to these regulations, even though it’s still unclear what actually constitutes overstepping the mark where “unsuitable” content is concerned.
“The regulation covers the publication of all online content. This essentially means that no sector, be it entertainment, finance or retail, is immune from the grip of the censors. If the regulators decide they don’t like what you are publishing then they will shut you down, and reasons and justification for the shutdown are hard to come by.”
David Schlesinger, managing director at Tripod Advisors and former China bureau chief for Reuters, agrees that now is not the time for foreign companies to push any limits when it comes to publishing content in China.
“China is making it clear that it wants control of ideas and expression within its borders. This is not a time when foreign companies will be able to set the terms for getting their content into China; the choice will in most cases come down to playing by China’s rules or deciding not to play in China at all,” he said.