Legal Roundup: Expanded Restrictions on Foreign Content Online

Flickr/Creative Commons

Flickr/Creative Commons

China Narrows Online Opportunities for International Publishers

A broad new regulation pulls together and strengthens the limits on activities by international publishers of materials — including audio, video, print publications, and games — who might wish to reach the growing audience of more than 650 million Chinese online.

While many reports have painted the regulation as a shocking new example of censorship by China’s government, it is really more a case of business as usual, as international content providers have long faced an increasingly steep and challenging set of obstacles in their attempt to do business online in the world’s second-largest economy. Hollywood studios must already work with Chinese regulators and partners to get their content into China, and foreign news media face even stricter controls, with both the English and Chinese sites of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal blocked.

[Read the regulation in Chinese, released after a slow week on the legal front due to the seven-day public holiday for the Lunar New Year].

The new regulation, jointly issued by the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, will take effect on March 10, and replaces the “Provisional Regulations for the Management of Online Publishing” that took effect in 2002.

While the old regulation already required all online publishers get Beijing’s approval, the new regulations are more detailed and specifically restrict the scope of activities allowed for non-Chinese content creators. Now, companies with any foreign investment (including international joint ventures) are banned from publishing any type of content online, though they may partner with Chinese companies on special projects subject to prior approval from SAPPRFT, a process that can take up to 60 days.

The new regulation dictates that all content must be hosted on servers physically located inside mainland China, allowing Beijing to assert further control over all media online and sending a clear signal that outside content must play by China’s rules.

Selective past enforcement of existing regulations means that it is not clear how much of a crackdown will follow as a result of the new rules, particularly against major international players with existing stakes in the online market, such as Apple and Disney. Some observers expect that gray areas will remain because of the way regulation of the Internet and content is divided in China: SAPPRFT is in charge of audio-visual content, MIIT licenses websites, another entity—the State Internet Information Office—sets the overall policy, and the Ministry of Culture is also involved through its issuing approvals of imported audio-visual content for non-theatrical distribution.

SAPPRFT to Fund Chinese Films That Can Go Abroad

Special government funding is being made available for outstanding films, including animation and documentaries, that have the potential to play well overseas, according to a notice from an industry regulator (Read in Chinese here).

According to the SAPPRFT notice, the works seeking government funding should present a positive image of China and its culture, and entities making the application should have clear rights to the work, the ability to provide high-quality dubbing, and have a plan to promote sales overseas. Specific funding amounts were not detailed in the notice. Organizations involved in production can submit their applications through provincial level authorities through the end of February.

New Year’s Box Office Fraud and Piracy

The box office record-smashing Lunar New Year holiday week was tainted by improprieties, according to a notice issued by the China Film Copyright Association. (Read in Chinese here).

Authorities said that they were investigating 57 theaters around the country on suspicion of box office fraud involving the top three films of the holiday period, as well as a case of unauthorized previews of the films three days before their official release dates.

As China creates its own blockbuster hits, piracy has become a growing concern for domestic copyright holders. During the holiday, close to 1,000 unauthorized links to download the top three films were uncovered, and at least one of the films found itself on YouTube, which is blocked in China.

Ten Years Disappears

After becoming a surprise hit in Hong Kong, the low-budget dystopian film Ten Years suddenly stopped screening in the somewhat independently governed city. The film, which presents a critical vision of Hong Kong’s future under Beijing’s rule, was slammed by one state-run media outlet as a “virus of the mind.” One of the movie’s directors expressed frustration that his film was pulled even as it played to packed houses, and suggested that self-censorship was at play, though some theater owners said their decisions were economic in nature. Nevertheless, the film has been picked up for international release by Golden Scene.

Xi Jinping’s Media Tour

For the first time since taking power three years ago, the Chinese president visited the three major state-run media outlets: The “Party mouthpiece” newspaper People’s Daily, Xinhua News Service, and flagship broadcaster China Central Television.

Xi, accompanied by propaganda czar Liu Yunshan, was crystal clear in promoting his wide-ranging ideological campaign that encompasses culture, the media, and entertainment.

“All the work by the party’s media must reflect the Party’s will, safeguard the Party’s authority, and safeguard the Party’s unity,” Xi said. “They must love the Party, protect the Party, and closely align themselves with the Party leadership in thought, politics and action.”