In Kevin Smith’s 2001 movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, one of the main characters refers to the Internet as a place for “slandering others anonymously.” While that’s certainly far from everything the web is designed for, it appears to be one application the Chinese government is particularly keen to crack down on.
In a new rule from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s Internet regulator, Internet users will have to stick to their real names when registering with social media sites and blogs, and will be forbidden from using handles or avatars that are misleading.
A statement posted on its website says the rules—which go into effect March 1—are aimed at stemming content that “polluted the Internet ecology, harmed the interests of the masses and seriously violated core socialist values.”
China began requiring Internet companies to keep the real names of some users in 2012, but the new stricter laws mean this will also be applied to a broader range of services and even the comment sections on websites. Once registered, Internet users will still be permitted to use their own usernames and avatars provided they don’t involve banned content. Users must also sign a contract promising to refrain from anything “illegal and unhealthy” online.
While the explanation given is that this will stop “username chaos” and cut down on “vulgar” parody accounts on services like Weibo and WeChat, it is also a way for the country’s Communist government to stop the spread of unwanted criticism. Of course, the practicalities of this are another matter. Exactly how China plans to enforce the use of real names hasn’t been revealed, but according to China News Service, service providers would be required to devote staff to implement and enforce the rules.
Those who want to find a way to remain anonymous online will likely be able to find a way to. Since the first “real name” policy was enacted in 2012, enforcement has proved difficult and costly for service providers, many of whom have sought to avoid the logistical and financial load of tracking millions of users, not to mention the burden of keeping all that data safe. (After South Korea enacted a similar policy in 2011, hackers stole the personal information of 35 million Internet users.)
However, the new rules, combined with a steady campaign of web censorship, are likely to have some impact on the country’s internet population, as can be seen from the shrinking number of social media users in China. Last year, the number of microblog users in the country declined by 7.1% to 249 million, according to the government-sponsored China Internet Network Information Center. With twice the number of Internet users as the entire U.S. population, if the Chinese government can stop even a tiny fraction of would-be dissenters, it will be a significant number of people.
The rules were also seen as a prelude to a more unified tracking system that would allow Internet users to register for online services using a digital ID connected to their government-issued ID card.
To do business in the country, companies are forced to grant “back doors” in software to allow for government scrutiny, while also agreeing to store any data gathered on servers inside China. Recently, China blocked the ability of users to receive Gmail on smartphones using third-party emails services including Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook. A number of popular sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and many Google services, are similarly blocked.