Social media companies rely on user agreements as one means to manage content produced by users. While much has been written on user agreements and community standards of U.S.-based social media, surprisingly little is known about Chinese user agreements and their implications. We compare terms of services as well as privacy policies of WeChat and Weibo between 2014 and 2019 using their U.S. counterparts WhatsApp and Twitter as a benchmark. We find that Chinese user agreements reveal a territorial-based understanding of content management differentiating between PRC and non-PRC users based on language, IP address and country of citizenship. Second, Chinese social media companies are surprisingly transparent about what content can be published, which has implications for self-censorship among users. Third, changes in PRC user agreements reflect Xi Jinping’s tightening control of the Internet. Finally, U.S.-based platforms have moved towards content management that differs by region, thus becoming more similar to the Chinese approach over time.
China’s legal system and the approach towards content management
Towards a territorial-based approach of content management
Towards greater transparency
Personal information and data processing
Trend over time
Conclusion and implications of findings
Social media companies across the world are taking on an important role in managing and controlling Internet content. They are using a variety of means to do so, such as automatic upload filtering, user reporting, and user agreements. Social media platforms have become “proxy censors” regulating content with regards to government and own commercial interests .
Chinese social media companies operate in a drastically different environment than U.S.-based companies. Social media platforms are first defined as media in China and only second as products of private companies. As a result, they are integrated into China’s political structure whereby companies are subject to an elaborate state administrative structure led by the Cyberspace Administration of China in charge of regulating online content . Within this institutional infrastructure the implementation of content management is outsourced to private companies, whereby Chinese companies rely on similar mechanisms as their counterparts outside of China to manage content (see, for example, Cairns, 2016). Here, we focus on user agreements as one such important mechanism: How do Chinese social media companies communicate restrictions to users? What do Chinese user agreements have in common and how does this approach differ from their U.S. counterparts?
We compare Weibo and WeChat user agreements composed of terms of service and privacy policies between 2014 and 2019. Due to similarities of the platforms user agreements of Twitter and WhatsApp are used as a benchmark for reference. We are not systematically comparing Chinese and U.S.-based user agreements in order to draw conclusions about differences between these two countries. We highlight four key findings: First, Chinese user agreements reveal a territorial-based understanding of content management. Social media companies differentiate between users based on their language, IP address and country of citizenship. So-called PRC users, defined as people holding a Chinese passport, people entering the territory of the PRC, or Chinese-incorporated companies, have to abide by PRC-specific user agreements, whereas non-PRC users have very similar rights to users from U.S.-based companies. Second, Chinese social media companies are surprisingly transparent regarding censorship, personal information and data processing to enforce self-censorship among its netizens. Third, changes in PRC user agreements reflect Xi Jinping’s tightening control of the Internet. During the first five years of his rule the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has centralized China’s state administrative bodies in charge of regulating online content (Cairns, 2016; Creemers, 2017). Changes in user agreements reflect this broader trend. Finally, while we do not find evidence for a territorial-based approach among U.S.-based companies in 2014, Twitter and Facebook have moved towards content management that differs by region in 2019, thus becoming more similar to the Chinese approach over time.
To provide background we start laying out China’s approach towards legal reform and content management of social media companies, followed by an explanation of the above main findings. We conclude with a discussion, placing findings from China within broader trends in content management.
China’s legal system and the approach towards content management
In contrast to liberal democracies characterized by ‘rule of law’, the Chinese state operates within ‘rule of law’, whereby the Chinese Communist Party assumes a privileged position above the law and the government (Wang and Liu, 2019). For example, during the recent anti-corruption campaign President Xi Jinping ordered corruption investigations against party members sidelining the general bureaucratic body (Heilmann, 2016; ChinaFile, 2018). This explains the top-down nature of the party giving directives to the Chinese judicial system and the government.
However, China has also undergone legal reform which weakens the top-down nature of rule by law. As part of legal reform the government directs decision-making by mostly local officials to courts, not allowing party officials to intervene in judicial processes (Liebman, 2017). Wang and Liang (2019) demonstrate that government officials also empower courts to effectively respond to environmental protection in Guiyang. The Chinese political system is therefore not characterized by a fully centralized hierarchical structure; instead, China experts have long emphasized the fragmented nature of the Chinese authoritarian state promoting legal reforms for more effective governance (see, for example, Lieberthal and Lampton, 1992). In the words of Cheesman : the Chinese ruling elites are not on the “low rungs on a ladder to the rule of law; they are climbing a different ladder altogether.”
More specifically regarding content management, China has built an extensive infrastructure for media governance within which social media companies are integrated. Chinese media remain embedded into a sophisticated institutional framework that monitors media content and gives directives to media when content is undermining official policies and goals of the government. Yet along with the introduction of market forces in media and the development of new communication technologies, such as the Internet and cell phones, the CCP has moved away from using overt techniques of giving directives to media professionals to increasingly relying on softer and more subtle techniques (Stockmann, 2013).
In terms of media governance the state has been strengthening the legal system and has been fostering self-regulation among journalists. Chinese media are often solving disputes with officials in the courtroom where they lose most defamation cases brought against them (Liebman, 2011). The Chinese state has also promoted training and education of journalists in exercising “societal responsibility” (社会责任)  — a synonym for behaving in line with the goals and policies of the CCP, which is part of the ethical code. At the same time, critical investigative journalism has faced challenges, even more after Xi Jinping came into office (Tong, 2019).
On social media, paid bloggers known as “50-cent party members” in combination with subtle technology, such as technical error messages that are displayed when information is deleted or blocked, create difficulties to detect censorship in the eyes of users (Bandurski, 2008; Boas, 2006; Brady, 2008; Chase and Mulvenon, 2002; MacKinnon, 2009; Qiu, 2000) . To incentivize Internet companies to conform to censorship policies, companies have been awarded self-discipline awards for displaying social responsibility . At the same time, legal regulations passed towards the end of Hu Jintao’s and beginning of Xi Jinping’s rule form the basis to punish individual users for messages that go viral and potentially challenge social stability and deter users from publishing and spreading such messages. Anyone deliberately posting lies may face up to three years in prison, if their posts are shared more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people . After years of resistance among Chinese netizens, real name registration, under which every user is required to register with the real name for the general use of Internet services, was implemented in 2015 (Li, 2015) . User agreements are part of this effort to become more transparent about rules for deletion and blocking of content; by speaking directly to users they aim to educate users about rules for self-censorship associated with socially responsible behavior. In China transparency is used to improve implementation of policies with the broader goal of supporting the survival of the party (Stromseth, et al., 2017). With greater openness of information regarding what is socially desirable, the central government tries to encourage citizens and media to monitor the Internet for misconduct, while at the same time strengthening the position of the CCP (Stromseth, et al., 2017).
Overall Xi’s administration has tightened the control over the Internet by introducing a complementary system of legal and regulatory measures that influence behavior among Internet users directly as opposed to working solely via Internet companies (Creemers, 2017). It is important to keep this context in mind when interpreting content of Chinese user agreements over time and in relation to their U.S. counterparts.
We collected user agreements composed of terms of service and privacy policies from the official Web site of Weibo owned by Sina and WeChat owned by Tencent. As a baseline for comparison we also collected those by their respective U.S. counterparts Twitter and WhatsApp. We also checked which user agreement was available to users depending on whether the app was used in English or Chinese (simplified and traditional). As shown in Table 1, Chinese user agreements divide into non-PRC user and PRC user versions.
Table 1: China and U.S.-based social media terms of service .
*** As of 15 August 2019 only the Chinese PRC version exists on the official registration page. Within the app the international version is available when switching the device to English.
We compared these user agreements in terms of structure, regulations on user-uploaded contents, and differentiation of PRC users and non-PRC users in 2014 and 2019. We proceeded in three steps: first, we compared the Chinese versions to the English version from the same company to see how WeChat and Weibo treat PRC and non-PRC users; second, we compared user agreements from Chinese to U.S.-based social media platforms, to identify differences as well as similarities. Third, we compared 2014 and 2019 versions of Weibo and WeChat to identify changes over time.
Towards a territorial-based approach of content management
The two Chinese companies, Sina and Tencent, distinguish between PRC and non-PRC users in their user agreements, whereby users receive different versions depending on their language preferences. For example, WeChat defined PRC users in the following way:
“These Terms apply to you if you are a user of our services anywhere in the world other than the People’s Republic of China (and you are not a citizen of the People’s Republic of China). If you are: (i) a user of our services in the People’s Republic of China; (ii) a citizen of the People’s Republic of China using our services anywhere in the world; or (iii) a Chinese-incorporated company using our services anywhere in the world, please refer to the Terms of Service (PRC Users) for the terms that apply to you in your use of our services.”
When selecting simplified Chinese (简体中文) on the international homepage, users will be redirected to the PRC homepage of WeChat. This Web site only provides the PRC version (English and Chinese) of the user agreement. The version for non-PRC users is not mentioned. Hence, language defines a digital boundary between the PRC and the international versions of user agreements. As mentioned above, another filter is the IP address. If users have an IP address from China, they will be automatically directed to the PRC version without having an option to choose the international version in the first place. Weibo uses the same mechanisms — language preferences and IP address — to differentiate PRC and non-PRC users, but it does not provide a definition of PRC users.
While the 2014 non-PRC version of WeChat applies additional laws to users from the U.S. and Australia, the 2019 non-PRC version also includes the EU. Interestingly, Weibo does not make this differentiation at all. All user agreements of Weibo in 2014 and 2019 are based on the law of the PRC.
In comparison, the two U.S.-based social media companies do not treat users differently depending on location, language, or IP address; one version is available in English for all users (see Table 1). Nevertheless, U.S.-based social media differentiate between users according to regions they are based in. WhatsApp refers to different headquarters being responsible for European and non-European users in 2019. This regional separation does not appear in 2014. Twitter also differentiates between users in 2019. They provide one version of terms of service that only applies to U.S.-American netizens and one for all international users. This points towards greater territorial-based approach towards content management over time, even among U.S.-based companies. Different to the Chinese social media user agreements, U.S.-based social media does not define digital boundaries between its users. All users can access the different versions of the user agreements.
Towards greater transparency
China’s division into PRC and non-PRC user agreements is significant, because the PRC version aims to make content management transparent to users. The PRC user agreements of Weibo and WeChat contain a section on user behavior and conditions for using the applications. WeChat explicitly states that users have to take responsibility for all actions on their accounts, whereas Weibo makes users responsible for content they post. Twitter and WhatsApp also mention that users are responsible for posted content, but provide less restrictions for political content.
Before we engage with rules for content management we first take a closer look at how social responsibility is defined as this concept lays out expectations for acceptable user behavior. Weibo and WeChat provide descriptions of their general expectation of user behavior. Weibo is explicit about what the social responsibility of a user should entail:
“Users should be civilized, respect personal rights and privacy of other users and they should build together a harmonious, civilized and polite social network environment.”
WeChat, however, provides a vague description, appealing to contributing to an overall respectful environment. Although this general description leaves room for interpretation, these rules are meant to educate users about which content can be published based on appeals towards healthy and civil discourse.
Similar to U.S.-based user agreements, Chinese terms of service are embedded into a legal framework, but in this case the laws and regulations of the PRC. According to terms of service users are not allowed to cover content :
- against the basic principles of the constitution;
- endangering state security, disclosing state secrets to subvert state power or disrupt national unity;
- damaging national reputation and interest;
- stirring up ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination and undermining national unity;
- undermining the country’s religious policies to promote cults and feudal superstitious;
- spreading rumors, disturbing social order, undermining social stability;
- spreading obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, murder, terror or instigation crime;
- insulting or slandering others, infringing upon the lawful rights and interests of others;
- infringing on intellectual property rights of any third party, copyright, reputation and trade secrets;
- violating human morality, customs and habits; and
- any form of advertising without permission from the Internet platform provider is not allowed.
These rules are not contained in non-PRC user versions. Rules 1–6 in particular specify the correct political usage of the social media platform. By making clear that social media should not be used to undermine the constitution, state security, national reputation or national unity, IT companies remind users that social media, just like traditional media, should only be used in ways that uphold the CCP’s leadership and the party’s organizational principles and policies . All changes to the constitution made under Xi Jinping’s rule in 2018 also apply to user agreements . Similarly, users should not undermine China’s unity, making an implicit reference to ethnic conflict and segregation movements in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as religious movements, such as Falun Gong, that could potentially threaten CCP rule and national unity . Overall, users have to follow the official line that demands support of unity and leadership under the rule of the CCP led by Xi Jinping.
False information has been an important aspect of content management in China since the introduction of advertising as an alternative funding of media outlets (Stockmann, 2013). Under Xi Jinping new legal regulations were passed that shed light on the definition of false information and rumors . In line with these legal regulations, references to rumors in user agreements, as in rule 6 above, refer to information that has the potential to cause instability, which is, of course, subject to decision by respective administrative authorities, and information that has not been confirmed by official sources (DiFonzo and Bordia, 2007; Wu, 2018; Zeng, et al., 2017) . For example, in 2017 the Cyberspace Administration of China issued a provision stating that netizens are allowed to repost information published by government organizations without altering the content (Cyber Space Administration of China (国家互联网信息办公室), 2017). In other words, information that has been cleared by government organizations clearly do not fall into the category of false information or rumors.
A core difference between WeChat and Weibo lies in how specific rules for deletion and blocking of content are spelled out to the user. WeChat explicitly mentions that demonstrations, illegal assembly etc. are prohibited, while Weibo uses broader terms, appealing to users to contribute to a “harmonious social network environment” or to avoid damaging “the image of the government or state organs”. In other words, WeChat is more precise on prohibited content compared to Weibo.
Surprisingly for an autocratic state, Chinese companies are remarkably transparent about content management in their Chinese user agreements. While U.S.-based companies focus on prohibited information mentioned in rules 7–11 above, Chinese companies delete or block more information and regulate content that might have negative political ramifications. With regard to false information, although both Chinese and U.S.-based companies do not provide clear definitions of what constitutes false information in user agreements, they adopt different strategies towards inhibiting the spread of false information. National governments in the United States and Europe outsource the responsibility of managing false information to social media companies and place pressure on social media companies to delete posts or punish users in the event of spreading false information (Goldzweig, et al., 2018) . While China has followed a similar approach under Hu Jintao, under Xi Jinping the Chinese government has passed a series of legal regulations that hold individuals accountable. In practice, Chinese users are less concerned about political censorship and reactions by the regime compared to reactions by acquaintances, friends, and family. What kind of political talk is perceived to be socially desirable is more important in explaining whether people post or comment on political content online compared to fear of political repercussion or censorship (Stockmann and Luo, 2019). Legal regulations operate at this intersection between political and social norms; they provide guidelines for how to differentiate false from accurate information, thus supporting self-censorship among what is envisioned as “socially responsible” users.
Personal information and data processing
In line with the above-mentioned Chinese regulations, both Chinese companies ask users to register with real personal information. If users do not register with their real identity both services have the right to block or, in the case of Weibo, to even delete the account. Similarly, WhatsApp asks users to register with their real identity and update their information frequently. Only Twitter does not require the user to register with a real name . Hence, WhatsApp, WeChat (PRC version) and Weibo (PRC version) require more personal information on registration compared to Twitter.
Trend over time
As explained earlier, we detected more references to relevant laws and regulations that have been passed under Xi Jinping. Changes in PRC user agreements over time reflect greater tightening of content management during the first five years of Xi Jinping’s rule. At the same time, however, greater embeddedness of user agreements into legal rules and regulations was also associated with greater transparency, thus increasing predictability of content management among users. Yet greater transparency is not only restricted to spelling out the rules of the game for users. For example, Weibo’s user agreement specifies how accounts of media and government are managed and regulated by the Cyberspace Administration Authority (网信部门) as well as the News and Information Authority (新闻主管部门) . Sina also describes ties to China’s political structure.
Conclusion and implications of findings
All our findings originate from two Chinese and two U.S.-based companies at two points in time. Obviously, we cannot draw conclusions about trends in content management of Chinese and U.S. companies more broadly. With that caveat in mind our findings suggest the following:
First, Chinese user agreements reveal a territorial-based approach towards content management. Weibo and WeChat differentiate between PRC and non-PRC users. Surprisingly, the boundaries of the nation state are not the only determining factor for being considered a PRC user — Chinese citizenship alone or working for a Chinese-incorporated company are sufficient indicators to qualify as PRC user on WeChat. Similarly, traveling to China is also sufficient to be qualified as a PRC user.
Second, Chinese social media companies have become more transparent in terms of deleted content, use of personal information and data processing. Greater openness and transparency are in line with broader trends in the Chinese political system and support attempts to educate citizens to become more socially responsible (Stromseth, et al., 2017; Yang, 2017). The Chinese government initiated a discourse on civil behavior to undermine criticism and its negative framing of the state (Yang, 2017). Spelling out the rules for rewarding and punishing correct behavior of users creates many ‘authorities’ (users) that help monitor content and behavior of other users .
Third, references to relevant laws reflect a broader trend towards stronger content management under Xi Jinping. Since some of the laws leave room for interpretation — the definition of rumors or fake news for example — content managers are in the position to re-define them depending on directions given by relevant state authorities. New rules of prohibiting the spread of rumors or false information have been used to manage criticism and to silence users with large mobilization potential (Economy, 2018). In a leaked speech at the National Propaganda and Work Conference in 2013, Xi Jinping mentioned that public opinion leaders following the party line should be encouraged and those going against the official line should be restrained (Economy, 2018). As relevant laws and regulations have tightened space for public discourse under Xi Jinping, changes in PRC user agreements over time reflect greater tightening of content management during the first five years of Xi Jinping’s rule.
About the authors
Daniela Stockmann, Ph.D., is Professor of Digital Governance at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany.
E-mail: stockmann [at] hertie-school [dot] org
Felix Garten is Research Associate at the Hertie School.
E-mail: garten [at] hertie-school [dot] org
Ting Luo, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.
E-mail: t [dot] luo [at] mmu [dot] ac [dot] uk
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement n. . The Hertie School of Governance and Leiden University are both beneficiaries of the grant.
1. Hintz, 2016, p. 340.
2. Authority between the Cyberspace Administration of China and the implementing ministries under the State Council remains unclear and tensions exist (Creemers, 2017).
3. Cheesman, 2014, p. 113.
4. Dombernowsky, 2016, p. 184.
5. Both of these means are not easily detected by netizens — Internet commentators do not uncover that they are employed by the state and error messages when searching for sensitive keywords often indicate technical difficulties rather than detecting censorship as the cause. On trends towards more subtle means of censorship see, for example: Bandurski, 2008; Boas, 2006; Brady, 2008; Chase and Mulvenon, 2002; MacKinnon, 2009; Qiu, 2000.
6. During the Fifteenth China Internet Conference the “China Internet Industry Self-discipline Award” was granted to about 30 enterprises (Internet Society of China, 2016).
7. China’s Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a new judicial interpretation in 2013 on fines or prison time for those profiting from spreading rumors (Chinese Defamation Law (两高发布关于办理网络诽谤等刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释), 2013).
8. The regulation was implemented by the Cyberspace Administration of China on 1 March 2015. It follows the decision of the Standing Committee on December 2012 to improve the network security (National People’s Congress Standing Committee, 2012).
10. Rules 1–8 are translated from the Chinese version of WeChat terms of service. The content is the same for Weibo.
11. See also Zhao (1998).
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Xinjiang has been part of the PRC since 1949 (Davis, 2008). Tensions and acts of resistance have been increasing over time, especially since the late 1990s (Rudolf, et al., 2016). Most Uyghurs in China want to be able to openly live their shared Islamic culture and traditions, while a minority participates in separatist movements. The Uyghur diaspora strives to create awareness among Western publics to increase pressure on the Chinese government (Mukherjee, 2010).
Falun Gong was a self-organized movement in China with an administrative body and mobilization potential (Tong, 2002). It was officially banned in 1999.
14. In 2013 China’s Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a new judicial interpretation on fines or prison time for those profiting from spreading rumors (Chinese Defamation Law (两高发布关于办理网络诽谤等刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释), 2013). In 2016 a new Cyber Security Law prohibited rumors that undermine economic and social order (Cyber Security Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国网络安全法), 2016).
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Received 23 October 2019; revised 9 December 2019; revised 9 January 2020; revised 3 March 2020; accepted 17 June 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Daniela Stockmann, Felix Garten, and Ting Luo. All Rights Reserved.
Who is a PRC user? Comparing Chinese social media user agreements
by Daniela Stockmann, Felix Garten, and Ting Luo.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 8 - 3 August 2020