China Slams Messaging App Industry with Real-Name Registration Mandate

China’s Internet authority has issued a new rule requiring all messaging app companies to set up real-name registration for users, an effort mainly aimed at China’s most popular messaging app WeChat.

The rule from the State Internet Information Office on Aug. 7, 2014, says that users can still use nicknames on the front end, but have to use real names to register on the back end. It says the move is an effort to “further promote the healthy and orderly development of public information services, protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and safeguard national security and public interests.”

WeChat logo. Photo by Flickr user ldjjj. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

WeChat logo. Photo by Flickr user ldjjj. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The new regulation also says only official media accounts can post political news; other public accounts wishing to publish political news need to seek prior approval. Public WeChat accounts are typically used by individuals or companies to share news to subscribers. With the popularity of WeChat, they have become a major source of news for Chinese people. 

WeChat has grown popular since 2012 and now has almost 400 million active users. During the WeChat crackdown earlier this year, over 100 public accounts were shut down.  

After the news was announced, some see it as a violation of privacy, and many worry that it could be used to track down users who help spread news critical of the government. An authority from the State Internet Information Office was quoted by Beijing News as saying, “The regulation helps protect the citizens’ freedom of expression.”

Since May 2014, parent company Tencent has been attempting to verify the real identities of the users behind public accounts by forcing the public account holders to upload their ID and mobile phone information. Before each message was sent to subscribers, the public account runner has to scan his or her own personal WeChat code. This way, Tencent can always find out whoever spread the “illegal”  message. 

The same announcement was made about Twitter-like service Sina Weibo last year. Although people have found ways to circumvent the rule, the serious crackdown on public accounts on Sina Weibo had a chilling effect all over the country. With the new crackdown on mobile apps, people are likely to watch their words before they post anything sensitive on WeChat. 

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