China

Beijing wants to make the internet less annoying

New regulations try to clamp down on the stuff users everywhere hate the most.

Beijing

Beijing has issued a yearlong wave of internet regulations.

Photo: Zhang Kaiyv/Unsplash

In a year when people can't keep track of how many "tech crackdowns" have already happened in China, it's easy to miss one regulation that came out on Monday: From November to March, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology says it will work on correcting many annoying phenomena that people are familiar with in the internet age, including deceptive cell phone and broadband plans, long and confusing terms and conditions, relentless pop-up ads, overpriced cloud services and more.

More than anything else, this new regulatory manifesto reads like a compilation of complaints from ordinary internet users. The trouble of finding the right "X" on a pop-up ad, the fear of privacy being shredded by invasive apps and endless micro-payments to unlock basic product features — these are the things that make everyday scrolling and tapping ever more insufferable, not only in China but around the world.

To domestic observers, one clause about cloud service providers has stood out the most: The MIIT is asking cloud service companies "to ensure that the file download and upload speed meets users' basic needs even if they haven't paid for premium services."

Weibo users are joking that this clause is targeting Baidu Wangpan without mentioning its name. Wangpan is the leading provider of personal cloud storage and file-sharing services, comparable to Google Drive. But while Google Drive charges extra for storage space, Baidu charges a fee to increase download and upload speed. Downloading a file could take days for an unpaid user, and only minutes for a paid one. Technically, users do have options: They can either be a premium member or a "super member," or just purchase 15-minute-long or daylong speed booster packs.

Chinese tech companies have often been praised for experimenting with new products and business models that Silicon Valley has yet to wrap its head around. But this also means powerful tech companies are quick to find new ways to exploit consumers, or at least inconvenience them enough that they decide to pay. In October, a comedy sketch satirizing over a dozen such sneaky tricks went viral.

The latest regulation by the MIIT shows that Beijing is also learning quickly, evolving its internet governance to match the often annoying innovations of China's private sector.

This is not the only campaign Chinese regulatory bodies have launched that is actually celebrated by the Chinese people. Regulators have vowed to make the internet less deceptive for senior citizens and have banned the common "link-blocking" practice that platforms use to reduce bounce rates. In fact, one of the most high-profile "crackdowns" of this year, targeting video games for underage players, is also welcomed by parents.

But what makes things trickier in China is that these campaigns can serve a mix of different state goals. By introducing more restrictions, Beijing is putting checks on tech companies that are growing out of control, gaining legitimacy by addressing citizens' concerns, and, after all, making the internet less annoying. It's further complicated when there are also regulations that aim to ramp up censorship, increase state influence on private companies or just punish individuals like Jack Ma who had gone beyond the limit.

This is not to say all these shady profit-driven practices on the internet will disappear tomorrow. The MIIT's wording of the latest regulation also left ample room for interpretation and maneuvering. To cite the cloud service provider regulation again, some people on social media questioned what it means that the speed has to meet "users' basic needs." What if tech companies claim that to download a file in 24 hours is enough for basic needs? This kind of vagueness leaves wiggle room for Beijing to pressure tech companies while not killing the industry's business potential.

But it's showing both Chinese people and people around the world that there is a way for governments to be more proactive in making the internet less annoying. There will be lessons for other regulators, both in the positive outcomes and the problems of state power concentration. Maybe U.S. politicians should start to take notes today.

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