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China’s Regulations on Protecting Minors on the Internet: The Devil Is in the Details

Young surfers at an LGD Gaming - credit: Bruce Liu, wikipedia
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Tan Liwei | Bitter Winter

Protecting minors from cyber addiction looks like a good idea, but is also an opportunity for an even stricter control of Internet use.

On March 14, 2022, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published for comments a draft of the new “Regulations on the Protection of Minors on the Internet.” As readers of Bitter Winter know, in China new laws and regulations are first published as drafts to gather comments by citizens, but this so-called exercise of democracy is largely cosmetic. Rarely are the proposals modified in their final version, and then only in small details.

The new Regulations have been commented favorably by netizens in China and even abroad as an advanced tool to fight cyberaddiction among teenagers and children. Many would agree that they spend too much time playing videogames and chatting with friends on social networks, at the expenses of real life. The Regulations note that, “According to statistics, in 2020, the number of underage netizens in the country has reached 183 million, and the Internet penetration rate of minors has reached 94.9%, which is significantly higher than the Internet penetration rate of 70.4% of the national population in the same period.”

Although the “reasonable time” that minors should be allowed to spend on the web is not defined, parents and other guardians of minors are told that they should check that this time does not exceed “reasonable.” If they fail to control children and teenagers, they will be subject to fines and even to “reeducation.” Schools and libraries should cooperate in this campaign.

Although the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) always tries to reduce social problems to questions of police and surveillance, it is certainly true that, as the Regulations state, an “irrational online consumption level” may damage minors. Some provisions of the Regulations, which protects the privacy of minors by limiting how their real names and likeness can be used by providers and entertainment companies, also mirror privacy standards that exist in many democratic countries.

However, when reading the Regulations more in detail, problems emerge. Reducing minors’ cyberaddiction is a laudable aim. However, the question is how can the authorities control that the Regulations are respected. One answer is that schoolmasters should look for signs of cyberaddiction among their pupils, as Article 47 of the Regulations mandates.

However, this is not the only way the Regulations will control the use of the Internet in private homes. Several articles mention technical tools Internet providers and the authorities shall use to detect whether minors’ cyberaddiction is indeed a problem in a specific home.

This means more intrusion and more control on the use of Internet in private homes. The surveillance tools may ascertain whether in a certain home an online game normally used by teenagers is accessed for an excessive amount of time every day. On the other hand, once these surveillance tools are implemented, they may be easily used to control more generally how Internet is used.

This is by no means mere speculation by some hyper-suspicious critics of the CCP. It is clearly spelled out in the Regulations. They include a comment that “General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out that in an attitude of being responsible to the society and the people, we must strengthen cyberspace governance in accordance with the law, strengthen the construction of online content, and create a clean cyberspace for the majority of netizens, especially young people.”

In practice, the Regulations say, this means that controls should make sure that minors use Internet to self-educate themselves according to “core socialist values” and are not exposed to “illegal” content, for which reference is made to a large number of laws, including those forbidding the use of the Internet to spread religious content.

While the Regulations deal with minors, once more invasive surveillance tools are implemented, they will not distinguish whether the Internet is accessed by minors or adults.

At the end of the day, the new Regulations and tools will allow the CCP’s Big Brother to enter even more systematically than it does now into private homes and domestic computers. Yes, they may protect minors from cyber addiction, but we have learned that more surveillance always mean more repression of any form of independent thinking and dissent.

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