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Real name registration for Internet access

CPC Encyclopedia

Real name registration for Internet access (in simplified Chinese 网络实名制), or Internet real name system, is a rule that requires Internet users to use their real names to identify themselves to service providers, including Internet or telecommunications operators. On December 28, 2012 China's top legislature passed rules on protecting online information, with a provision requiring Real name registration for Internet access.

The policy triggered heated discussion. Supporters say the rule serves to prevent electronic rumor-mongering and encourage discipline among Internet users. Opponents argue that requiring a real-name registration limits free speech.

Origin

Discussions about real-name systems in the Internet arena date to at least April 29, 2002 when Li Xiguang, a high-profile professor at Tsinghua University, told Guangzhou TV that, "The People's Congress should pass legislation that prohibits anyone from anonymously publishing things on the Internet."

Li said that — as in the traditional media — copyrights and intellectual property should be well-protected on the Internet, and people on the Internet should take legal responsibility for their words or activities.

His words provoked strong opposition from netizens and experts, such as Du Gangjian from the National School of Administration, Yu Guoming from Renmin University of China, Jiao Guobiao from Peking University.

Li later said the media had taken his words out of context.

On June 12, 2003, Li wrote a letter to The Chinese Journalist, saying that his suggestions were supposed to apply to all media, not just the Internet. "Today, I have no interest in whether users of the Internet" register their names or not "because prohibiting online anonymity is extremely unrealistic and unfeasible, both legally and technically."

On the move

Since Li Xiguangs's proposal, government agencies have increasingly taken legal and technical steps to prevent online anonymity. They've taken advantage of advanced technology by applying network-based, digital means of governing and social control.

Starting from 2003, authorities required people across the country to register with their ID cards before surfing at Internet cafes.

On May 13, 2004, the Internet Society of China published the draft standards for web-based public e-mail service to solicit public opinion. The draft standards called for the real name system for the first time.

In March 2005, the Ministry of Education released No 17 File to announce that BBS and websites of all universities and colleges should strictly apply the real-name registration system. In the Webmasters Summer Camp opened on July 27 at Shanghai Jiaotong University, this issue was discussed by the participants. Webmasters from 65 universities announced that they had already adopted real-name registration.

Anyone who wants to log on to the BBS or Intranet of these universities has to register with his real name, gender, birth date, debarment, major and student number.

At the beginning of 2005, a similar move was launched by the Ministry of Information Industry. All the non-profit Internet content providers must register with the real names of their top executives, ID card numbers, telephone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses.

On July 20, 2005, Tencent Company, one of the largest real-time chat software and service providers, announced that in order to maintain a clean cyberspace, all the discussion group administrators of its chat software, QQ, should register with their real names and ID card number in Shenzhen. Other cities will soon follow suit. Though Tencent told the Beijing Evening News on July 26 that common users should not worry about the prospect of real name registration, the public have signalled their worries.

A comprehensive management system for the Internet was announced in April 2010 by State Council Information Office Director Wang Chen. In step with the system, he said, China's major news and business portals had removed features that allowed anonymity in comment sections. The portal control effort yielded positive results, Wang said, and paved the way for testing for the next phase of real-name rules on the Internet: identification process for bulletin board systems.

Actually, many Chinese service providers have already set real-name registration requirements. China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom, China's three biggest telecom companies, have required individuals and enterprises to provide their real names when subscribing to data transmission services since September 2010.

Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging site that has been used by netizens to blow the whistle on corrupt officials, has required users to register with their real names since 2012.

Supporters's view

Supporters of the real-name rule say any control that counters anonymity serves to prevent the kinds of electronic rumor-mongering that can spread panic among the public, damage reputations and breed cyber crime.

They also argue that real-name systems encourage discipline among Internet users by bringing people closer when they chat online, and by promoting serious rather than spurious discussions.

Yin Yungong, director of the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the policy will help to dispel malicious rumors at their source.

"The policy will ensure online information spreads in an orderly and safe way," said Yin.

He said that netizens will get used to it gradually.

Huzhichenfeibeijixing, a Sina Weibo user, said whistleblowers using their real names will give their claims more weight.

Strong opposition

Opposition to the real-name system has been continuous, even though the system has not been put into practice yet.

Chen Tong, the vice CEO and chief editor of Sina.com said in Sina’s special column for discussing the real-name system that he opposed the system strongly. He said that the greatest attraction of the Internet was that people can make speeches anonymously in cyberspace. Defamation behaviour could be prohibited by other technological means than the real-name system.

Yu Hai, a sociologist from Fudan University, said he thought the real-name system was meaningless because it would do nothing to prevent cyber crimes. “In real life, people are required to use their real names and identities most often. But there are still many crimes. I don’t think that on the Internet, a real-name system could control cyber crime,” he said. He also added that it would restrict freedom of speech and would make people feel insecure. He thought the most interesting aspect of the Internet was the fact netizens communicate freely without concern for their real identities. Netizens can discuss topics they are afraid to discuss when their real identities are be known.

Yu said that if all websites, BBS and chat software adopted the real-name system, it would be a great blow to netizens’ enthusiasm for communication. "The negative influence of the real-name system would be too great," he said. He also pointed out that even if the real-name system is implemented, the cost of censoring speeches would be surprisingly high.

Zhao Shilin, author of "On Internet Communication" and teacher at the School of Film Arts and Technology at Shanghai University said the possibility of applying the real-name system to all Internet BBS, websites and chat software was questionable. He said that compared with traditional media, the Internet provided a relatively free space for Chinese netizens to speak out about their own ideas. The real-name system would jeopardize the public’s most valuable channel for expressing their ideas.

"For example, some students on campus worry about expressing their ideas with their real identities because they think they will be treated unfairly if their words annoy some authorities.

"If the real-name system is applied in all universities, I think fewer and fewer students will be prepared to express their own ideas on the university intranet or BBS. It’s not good for administration officers in the universities either, because they lose an effective way of learning about student responses and thoughts,” he said.

"Zhang Lifan," a netizens on popular Internet portal Sina.com, wrote that the regulation will affect online communication and reduce netizens' desire to participate in political discussions.

While netizens have various opinions on the impact of the policy, they are unanimous in calling for strict protection of online ID information.

"I doubt the government's ability to ensure the security of our information," wrote a Sina Weibo user with the screenname "yingluobiezhi," adding that he fears his personal information could end up being disclosed.

A survey published by the China Center for Information Industry Development in May 2012 showed that more than 60 percent of respondents said they had suffered personal information theft.

Internet users who have accounts on popular commercial or social networking sites are at the greatest risk of having their information stolen, according to Feng Qiang, an employee of a commercial website, adding that netizens' personal information is managed by the websites' operators.

Operators should protect their users' privacy and public security departments should play a supervisory role, Feng said.

References

1. (Chinese)Real name Internet system.baike.baidu.com.

2. (English) Internet ID policy triggers online discussion.Xinhua. Jan 4, 2013.

3. (English) Real name angst.Shanghai Star. Aug 14, 2005.

4. (English) Personal Data Danger in China's Glass House. Caixin.com. Nov 11, 2010.