On Friday, December 28, 2012, China's legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), approved a set of new rules intended to tighten government control over the Internet. The new rules will allow the State Council (China's central government) to amend the Administration of Internet Information Services Procedures [zh], the law governing the use of the Internet on Chinese territory, making it compulsory for Internet Service providers (ISPs) and Online Service Providers (OSPs)—like email, news or entertainment providers—to enforce real name registration of internet users.
Enforcing Internet Real Name Registration
Among the 151 attendees of the NPC, 145 voted in favor of adopting the new rules, 5 abstained and—in a very rare show of dissidence [zh]—1 representative voted against. The most controversial part of the 12-article document [zh] is the “Protection of Personal Information Online” section, which deals with real name registration. The document reads:
Network service providers will ask users to provide genuine identification information when signing agreements to grant them access to the Internet, fixed-line telephone or mobile devices or to allow users to post information publicly — Xinhua
The actual implementation of the real name provision will be specified in practice by the central government in a future amendment of the Administration of Internet Information Services Procedures, the law first introduced in 2000 and that governs Internet use in China.
The law already forces ISPs to ask users to register with their real names. OSPs, like micro-blogging platforms, on the other hand, have so far only been “encouraged” to ask all their users to register with their real names.
Sina Weibo [zh], China's most popular and influential microblogging service, has two real name registration systems. The first is a verification system for celebrities, similar to that of Twitter. Upon government pressure, Weibo launched a second real name registration mechanism in early 2012 for its broader community of users. The system is connected to Weibo's online payment platform where mainland Chinese users have to submit their real names, I.D. card numbers, create a password for their online payment service. The system will then match the user's name and I.D. card number to complete the verification process. As for overseas users, real name registration is not required. Sina Weibo encourages them, however, to connect their mobile phone numbers with their accounts.
On February 2012, Sina Weibo threatened to suspend anonymous users’ accounts if they failed to register their real names before March 16, 2012. Past the deadline, anonymous users could no longer comment or retweet under certain “hot-topics.” However, the policy was very short-lived. In fact it lasted only for a few days as the company seen a steep drop in user activity, forcing it to restore its original basic service.
Currently, anonymous users can still post micro-blogs, retweet and comment. However, many still complain about strange system behavior: some say their posts are visible only to themselves or to mutually followed friends, some only to followers.
The future amendment may penalize those OSPs which fail to enforce real name registration. The new set of regulations will also allow OSPs to change their terms of service with their users without running the risk of being sued by their clients.
Implications of the New Set of Rules
How the policy will actually be implemented is a matter for the State Council to decide. That's why prominent human rights lawyer, Liu Xiaoyun, urged all netizens to voice their opposition against any measure that could violate freedom of expression as protected by the Chinese constitution. Below is the translation of a selection of Liu's answers to a series of questions and concerns raised by Chinese netizens on the Netease microblog [zh] platform:
hansonji ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：我担心网络反腐败到实名为止了，，网络实名本身就是最大的侵权。
hansonji: I am worried that the real name registration system will put an end to the online anti-corruption campaign. The system is a violation of human rights.
Liu: The Korean Constitution court has already ruled that the real name registration has violated users’ freedom of expression. The Chinese Constitution has also protected Chinese citizen with rights to freedom of expression. However, in the case of China, we don't have a constitution court and we can't file a judicial review against the administrative regulation on the protection of internet information.
网络知客 ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：手机卡号实名制购买，现在弄得各种促销短信满天飞，谁泄露的我的手机号码？ 股市个人信息泄露又是谁的责任～？
网络知客 : We have mobile phone real name registration implemented. But what we get is mobile spams. Who has leaked out my mobile numbers? Even personal information in stock market has been leaked. Who is going to be responsible for this?
Liu: After the real name registration, it is much more easy for commercial sectors and the authorities to obtain people's private data. It will be more insecure.
我爱天美 ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：棺员财产公示制度千呼万唤出不来，这个封口法律为何这么快？？
我爱天美 : How come the legislation for government officials to disclose their property has never been implemented, even though the whole world has been calling for that. Whereas for making rules to shut people up, the legislation is so quick?
Liu: I don't understand that either. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) has started discussing the disclosure of government officials’ property since 1994. It has been 18 years, nothing came out yet. The hearsay explanation is that “the conditions are not mature enough”!
xzly的空间 ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：请问，保护网络信息如何与揭发执政者的腐败行为区分开来？从而不会让腐败官员打着保护网络信息安全的旗号阻止、压制、打击、陷害举报揭发他们腐败罪行的正义人士。
xzly的空间 ：Is there a way to protect internet information without repressing online anti-corruption efforts? How to stop corrupted officials from repressing and cracking down of the righteous ones who exposed their corruption under the excuse of the protection of internet information security?
Liu: The real name registration system cannot protect internet information security. Korean columnist Kim Chong Il from the Financial Times pointed out that when South Korea introduced the real name registration system in July 2007, the objective was to reduce verbal violence, defamation, rumors and human flesh related search queries. However, such objective has never been fulfilled. On the contrary, the system has attracted many hackers to attack major web portals.
xianshideliliang12 ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：对于信息保护的监督落实和此法案有多大意义上的作用
xianshideliliang12: What is the implication of this bill in the implementation of online personal data protection and monitoring?
Liu: With the NPC's decision, the State Council can propose a set of regulations to implement the rules. The deputy head of the law making office of the State Council Yuan Shuhong said that the State Council is now working with various departments to amend the Administration of Internet Information Services Procedures which was implemented in 2000. The amendment will specify the details.
海上神鹰 ：#解读网络信息保护草案# 向@刘晓原律师 提问：网络信息保护是出于什么样的目的？是监视网民不要乱在网上发布不利于官员的信息还是监视网民对社会不公正现象表达不满？
海上神鹰: What is the purpose of the internet information protection? Is it intended to monitor netizens and stop them from revealing information that can hurt government officials? Is it intended to prevent them from speaking up against social injustice?
Liu: Not long ago, some media reports said that the anonymous use of the internet will create barriers for the police to investigate on online crimes. Now they say that it is for the sake of protecting citizens’ personal information online.