2nd Oct 2023


China's cat-and mouse game blocking web content no model for EU

  • Of course, if you ask a Brussels policymaker to name a role model for internet regulation, China won't be on their list. (Photo: Howard Lake)

China's content clampdowns have driven internet users to underground digital spaces that are much harder to keep tabs on.

The EU rightly wants to stop online hate speech and disinformation and knows that any regulation should be a balancing act between security and freedom of speech.

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  • Germany's synagogue shooter used the lesser-known social media streaming platform Twitch, frequented by gamers (Photo: Wikimedia)

Sadly, the EU is currently leaning toward prioritising safety over liberty, a fraught approach akin to one Beijing has been pursuing for two decades. China proves that sacrificing freedom for security is no solution.

Governments have tried to strengthen content moderation through rules that hold platforms liable.

In doing so, they mask the symptoms but do not cure the underlying causes of pernicious and misleading content. In China, citizens have over the years found loopholes to circumvent measures for blocking content.

Mainstream platform users who disagree with norms enforced by content moderators turn to less mainstream spaces to communicate and organse. Things may seem safer on the surface, but in reality, threats become harder to assess – and even amplified.

Of course, if you ask a Brussels policymaker to name a role model for internet regulation, China won't be on their list.

China's highly sophisticated tools for policing content, blocking websites and tracking user behaviour have earned its policies notoriety as The Great Firewall of China.

China has built an extensive institutional and technological infrastructure to monitor, surveil, delete and block content by users. This is no blueprint for democracies grappling with disinformation, hate speech and election meddling.

Yet current dynamics between policymakers, companies, and users in the EU and elsewhere in fact bear resemblance to China's over the last two decades.

Policymakers want to increase control over online public opinion when it threatens political stability; companies implement content moderation, but want regulators to offer guidance on what to remove; and some discontented users seek alternative spaces to openly express opinions and organise.

The angriest of these may turn to disruptive protests or violence, leading governments to increase control and monitoring over platforms, reinforcing the problem. This painful point has to be made to stop the EU repeating China's mistake of top-down regulation of free speech.

The EU Commission under president Ursula von der Leyen recently presented its goals for a new digital strategy, and is now expecting feedback about ideas like reinforcing content oversight.

Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter long resisted government intervention, but they now see its upsides.

Facebook has presented its ideas in a White Paper and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took his case to Brussels policymakers in February.

Companies see that it's easier to blame regulators for user-unfriendly interventions than face popular criticism for self-regulation, seen by some as too lax and others as too strict.

Facebook and the other social media giants. have learned that policing themselves will never be good PR.

Paper tiger

Their attempts at self-regulation through user reporting and user education have proven a paper tiger in the face of Russian election meddling and fake news.

The companies have discovered self-regulation forces them to define the limits of free speech themselves – not a popular idea among citizens of liberal democracies, their customers.

To clean up cyberspace over time, governments will find they need to build up capacity to monitor and get companies to delete and block content in the name of security.

The result will be a cat-and-mouse game similar to that playing out in China.

Despite building the world's most extensive institutional surveillance apparatus, the Chinese government is nowhere near winning this game. Its fear of challenges to public security has driven it further and further down this hole.

Time and again, users in China have dodged government oversight - moving their conversations to game chat rooms or even jumping the firewall with VPNs to circumvent monitoring.

The livestreaming platform Bilibili, removed in 2019 from some smartphone apps, officially focuses on entertainment.

Users can interact live with streamers, commenting on video content, but conversations are sometimes quite political. It is just one of many such sites the Chinese government has clamped down on since the country started using the internet in the mid-1990s.

'Twitch' killing spree

In Germany, it was no coincidence that the killer responsible for the 2019 synagogue shooting in Halle chose to livestream over the platform Twitch.

Mainly used as a gaming platform, the site is not known as a place for sharing right-wing radical views.

But it was easier for the attacker to operate under the radar in this non-mainstream space.

Since then, German policymakers have drafted a revision to a 2018 law on content monitoring that would give law enforcement even greater powers over platform content and likely push some users to fringe sites.

EU, please note: content-blocking only increases the difficulty and cost of policing egregious content and could lead to much taxpayer money spent on building institutions worthy of a surveillance state.

The EU needs to think hard about where it's heading and consider potential consequences – for freedom of speech and civil liberties more generally.

What if Europeans end up with echo chambers of hate speech outside of mainstream platforms and are more closely watched by their governments than ever before?

It is time to consider alternative approaches to content moderation for a European model that tackles the problem rather than its symptoms.

Author bio

Daniela Stockmann is the author of Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), received the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize awarded by the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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