Wechat users under scrutiny
Law experts skeptical of feasibility of campaign to quash online rumors
China’s crackdown on online rumors has reached WeChat, with Zhejiang police saying it is illegal to spread rumors on the popular mobile messaging service.
At a news conference on Monday, Ding Renren, head of cybersecurity at the Zhejiang Public Security Department, said WeChat’s Moment, a virtual zone where users share texts and pictures with their contacts, is an online public venue.
“Although the target receivers are a specific group, it is still illegal to spread rumors and false information in such public venues without first verifying the information,” he said.
WeChat users could be held legally responsible if they cannot tell whether something is false information but still text about it or forward the rumor, he added.
The Zhejiang police statement comes amid a collective crackdown on Internet-based rumors in which dozens of people nationwide have been arrested.
Most recently, Shanghai police detained Fu Xuesheng, president of Shanghai LabInfo Technologies, on suspicion of fabricating rumors involving State-owned oil giant Sinopec and a Shanghai police chief and spreading them in online forums.
Focus is now turning to WeChat, which has about 500 million users worldwide, raising concerns among some users and legal experts.
WeChat’s operator, Tencent, will abide by China’s laws and regulations, a spokesperson at the company in Shenzhen said on Tuesday.
“WeChat has a reporting mechanism, and users can alert us if they find false information or rumors,” the spokesperson said. “Even information released on public accounts can be reported if proved to be false.”
Tan Bo, a postgraduate student at East China University of Political Science and Law, said, “Everybody has the freedom to express themselves, and that freedom should be respected and protected as long as the person is not spreading false information maliciously”.
As a mobile messaging application, WeChat should not pass the burden of checking the veracity of information to its users, he added.
Some experts questioned the feasibility of monitoring false information on WeChat.
“It’s still debatable whether WeChat’s Moment is a public venue or a private sector,” said Zhou Hanhua, a researcher at the law institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Yi Shenghua, a lawyer at the Yingke Law Firm in Beijing, said law enforcement will have difficulty monitoring rumors spread among a specific group on the mobile messaging service, unlike micro blogs and online forums.
“Unless the contact person reports the false information, police officers cannot know what is being said among a small circle of friends,” he said.
He also suggested measures to fight online rumors.
“I support the authorities’ clampdown on such rumors,” he said. “Like when the rumor of salt being in short supply led to panic buying, such false information creates great trouble in society.
“But cyberspace has its own rules, and it won’t work if authorities try to manage it with measures they use in the real sector,” he added.
He also warned that efforts to fight false rumors should not go too far or the public’s interest in taking part in social affairs will be dampened. An Baijie in Beijing contributed to this story.