China Imposes New Restrictions on Online Publishing

China has issued new, wide-ranging regulations on the publication of virtually any type of content over the Internet. The new rules, promulgated jointly by the PRC State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), go into effect on March 10.

Foreign Internet companies already have to work in China through contractual arrangements with (usually captive) Chinese companies, called VIEs, or variable interest entities. The new Rules don’t change this. But now the VIEs will have to get pre-approval for their relationships with the foreign companies, which gives the PRC government a new opportunity to review and pass on foreign Internet content providers. Internet publishers in China will not have to get special online publishing permits, submit to examinations, and comply with intrusive self-censorship requirements.

The new Rules will affect foreign companies publishing all types of content in China, from news and current information to social media companies and distributors of games, apps and cloud computing services. Content aggregators are subject to the new Rules as well as creators of original content. “Online publishing” covers virtually anything that can be distributed on the Internet, including databases, videos, cartoons, maps, animations, and all types of written works.

The Rules require Internet publishers to maintain their content on servers within the PRC, but the Rules arguably don’t apply in the first place to publishers whose servers are outside of China. At a minimum, the new Rules serve notice that China intends to scrutinize foreign content more closely, as the government in Beijing continues to react to domestic unhappiness with the economic slowdown, pollution, public safety and other difficulties.

The Rules flatly prohibit online publishing without compliance with the new permitting requirements and content restrictions. It remains to be seen how fast China will gear up to enforce the new Rules. Content providers currently operating in China through joint ventures and VIEs should prepare for the new registration requirements, and content providers with servers outside of China should be aware of Beijing’s increased concern over foreign content.