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Friday, January 4, 2008

The Chinese government announced new rules for Internet Video

Enjoy your streaming videos while you can, Chinese YouTube fans. The Chinese government announced new rules Thursday that could block all but a few video sites from reaching Chinese viewers. The regulations, posted to Web sites of China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Information Industry, require that effective Jan. 31, all online video outlets avoid politically or morally objectionable content and obtain a government-issued permit.

While the statute could limit online video to state-controlled media sites and ban foreign-owned video-hosting sites like YouTube and MySpace, it may also go unenforced, serving more as a threat to coerce video-hosting sites to police themselves. Rather than banning sites like YouTube altogether, says Ben Edelman, a professor at Harvard Business School and an Internet filtering researcher, Beijing's new rules may be "a shot across the bow."

Because the government lacks the technology to filter video as selectively as it filters text, Edelman says, it may hope to scare sites into censoring the content that the government wants banned. That digital contraband would include politically sensitive messages about racial minorities and human rights as well as sexual images. "Would the government actually block all video sites, save for registered sites, in one fell swoop?" he asks. "Maybe not. Their goals are just as well served by the threat."

MySpace China, a Chinese-language version of the News Corp. (nyse: NWS - news - people ) social networking site, already practices some degree of self-censorship. The site has been criticized by bloggers for demanding that users report one another when they spot posts with objectionable political content. Its terms of service prohibit members from discussions that would "leak state secrets or undermine the government," or "spread rumors and disturb the social order." MySpace China, however, hosts no video. Neither MySpace China nor its U.S.-based counterpart could be reached for comment. It remains to be seen whether the original MySpace, one of the most popular U.S. video sites, would follow MySpace China's self-censorship model to obey the Chinese government's new rule.

Would YouTube, which is owned by Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ), be willing to censor content to comply with tightened Chinese regulations? "We obey local laws wherever we have local sites," says YouTube spokesperson Ricardo Reyes. In fact, YouTube does host a Hong Kong site, which would fall under Chinese law. But its terms of service do not contain the political prohibitions included in MySpace China's terms of service.

If foreign video sites are forced to cooperate with a repressive regime rather than lose their Chinese audience, they could face the same public relations disasters as other tech companies that have ventured into China. Google, for instance, was pilloried by human rights groups for censoring search results on its Chinese site in January 2006. And last October, after Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO - news - people ) handed e-mail information over to the Chinese government that helped jail a dissident journalist, the company's chief executive was denounced as a "moral pygmy" in front of a U.S. congressional subcommittee and forced to apologize publicly to the journalist's mother.

But whether the new regulations are actually a tacit order to censor content is still unclear. John Palfrey, a Harvard Law professor and researcher at the Open Net Initiative, worries that video sites without government ties could be wiped out altogether in preparation for the public relations battles surrounding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. "This could be bad news for free speech and bad news for economic development," says Palfrey. "And it could make it very hard for Web 2.0 businesses to compete in China."

In fact, no one outside of the Chinese government--least of all the affected sites themselves--knows to what degree the tightened regulations will be enforced or how complicated it will be for video sites to get government permits. A statement from YouTube expresses, above all, bewilderment. "China's new regulations for online video could be a cause for concern, depending on the interpretation," it reads. "Like other companies, we are studying the new rules."

China limits Internet video to state-controlled companies

China has moved to restrict videos online, allowing only state-controlled sites to post any -- including those shared by users -- and requiring Internet providers to delete and report a variety of content.
It wasn't immediately clear how the new rules would affect YouTube and other providers that host Web sites based in other countries that are accessible from China.

A spokesman for San Bruno, California-based YouTube said the restrictions "could be a cause for concern, depending on the interpretation.", which claims to be China's largest video sharing Web site, didn't immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

The new regulations, which take effect on January 31, were approved by both the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Information Industry and were described on their Web sites Thursday.

Under the new policy, Web sites that provide video programming or allow users to upload video must have a permit and be either state-owned or state-controlled.

The majority of Internet video providers in China are private, according to an explanation of the regulations posted on, which is run by the state-run China Film Group.

Video that involves national secrets, hurts the reputation of China, disrupts social stability or promotes pornography will be banned. Providers must delete and report such content.

"Those who provide Internet video services should insist on serving the people, serve socialism ... and abide by the moral code of socialism," the rules say.

The permits are subject to renewal every three years and operators who commit "major" violations may be banned from providing online video programming for five years.

Adhering to the new rules could be daunting for YouTube, where about 10 hours of online video covering a wide range of topics is uploaded to the site every minute.

The video-sharing site, which is owned by Google Inc., already faces allegations that it should do more to block the distribution of clips that infringe on copyrights.

None of YouTube's video-hosting computers is in China, but the government there could still block access to the site from within China.

YouTube hopes the rules won't cut it off from the rapidly growing number of Chinese residents with Internet access, spokesman Ricardo Reyes said.

"We believe that the Chinese government fully recognizes the enormous value of online video and will not enforce the regulations in a way that could deprive the Chinese people of its benefits and potential for business and economic development, education and culture, communication, and entertainment," Reyes said.

China ranks as the world's second largest Internet market with a total audience of about 164 million, including people who surf the Web from public computers, according to the research firm comScore Inc.

Only the United States, with about 182 million Internet users, boasts a larger online audience.

YouTube says people around the world watch more than 200 million videos on its site each day. It declined to specify how much of its traffic comes from China.

Google and other major Internet companies like Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. all have set up operations in China in hopes of making more money from online advertising as the country's economy grows.

But doing business in China also has required the companies to obey laws that stifle and punish free speech, raising the ire of U.S. politicians and human rights activists around the world.

In the biggest backlash so far, Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo was attacked in Congress after providing information about the online activities of two Chinese journalists who were subsequently imprisoned. Both journalists are serving 10-year prison sentences.

In November, Yahoo settled a lawsuit, agreeing to pay the attorneys' fees of the journalists. Yahoo also said it would "provide financial, humanitarian and legal support to these families." No other details of the settlement were disclosed

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