China has taken what looks like a drastic new step in its aims to restrict foreign companies disseminating information online with new rules that ban such companies from publishing online content.
The rules, released by the Ministry of Industry & Information Technology and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, say from March 10, foreign companies and Sino-foreign joint ventures will be restricted in publishing online content without government approval.
Content includes "texts, pictures, maps, games, animations, audios, and videos," according to the new rules.
Foreign companies working in conjunction with Chinese firms will be able to publish online content, but they will need government approval first.
Anything that is published must comply with a series of opaque rules, including not "harming national unity", nor "harming national honour and interests" and "endangering social morality".
Such a sweeping law against foreign companies could affect global media outlets and other online content distributors. Services such as Apple’s China App Store, which provides games and some content, could also run into problems.
Executives across China’s PR industry told PRWeek Asia they are studying the rules, but remain unfazed for now as the key question is how the rules will be enforced.
Jonathan Hughes, president, International at Golin, said: ""From a practical perspective it doesn’t appear to be that much different, there’s always been a high level of regulation of these kinds of content. What’s new, I guess, is that they are codifying what’s been common practice and turning it into law.
"Brands know they have to produce content that’s within certain social norms and restrictions within in China. They already know what they can and can’t do in terms of content."
The language of the rules is somewhat vague regarding which types of foreign companies will be affected.
Several foreign media outlets, such as Bloomberg, The New York Times and others, already have their sites blocked in China. Multinationals like Google, Facebook and Twitter have also been banned for many years.
The new rules say content published online in China must be hosted on servers in China, something that few foreign media companies do. How companies who host their content outside China will be affected is unclear.
Paul Haswell, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons in Hong Kong who specialises in technology and data protection, said enforcing the new rules seems tricky on the face of it, and that many Chinese consumers use VPNs to access restricted sites as it is.
"It’s hard to see how these new rules will really change the status quo. However if the rules go further, seeking to prevent overseas firms from having any online content in China at all, even a corporate website hosted outside of China, then they will be near-impossible to enforce but at the same time send a message that foreign business is no longer welcome," he added.
"It would be unusual, even in a climate where controls on information are tightening, for such a restrictive step to be taken."
Brittany Li, vice president of business development at Chinese content marketing agency FansTang, told PRWeek Asia that the firm’s foreign media partners have always known about restrictions on foreign content, and that the new rules might lead to specific, practical changes but not large-scale ones.
"When it comes to overall content strategy, I don’t think there will be a big effect," she said.
"The pushback from the Chinese government is a great opportunity for smaller content agencies or production houses like us, as we specialize in co-producing content through partnerships with Chinese video portals or licensing foreign content."