China forces EVERY internet user to register their real name in new free speech crackdown
- New rules follow use of popular microblogs to expose official corruption
- Regulations could restrict access to Western sites
PUBLISHED: 06:27 EST, 28 December 2012 | UPDATED: 11:11 EST, 28 December 2012
The Chinese government launched a new assault on free speech online today by requiring all internet users to register their real names.
The new rule comes in the wake of the runaway success of Weibo, a micro-blogging service similar to Twitter which has exposed corruption and other abuses of official power.
The country’s rubber-stamp legislature approved the controversial measures at the closing meeting of a five-day session.
Real-name registration will end the potential of the web to be a freewheeling forum to complain anonymously about the Chinese government.
The government claims the latest regulation is aimed at protecting web surfers’ personal information and cracking down on abuses such as junk email.
The measure will ‘ensure internet information security, safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal entities or other organisations and safeguard national security and social public interests,’ according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The measure would require service providers to ask users to provide their real names and other identifying information if they want to post information publicly or sign up for access to the internet and telephone services, Xinhua said.
Weibo users quickly reacted with fury to the changes.
‘So now they are getting Weibo to help in keeping records and reporting it to authorities. Is this the freedom of expression we are promised in the constitution?’, complained one user.
‘We should resolutely oppose such a covert means to interfere with Internet freedom,’ wrote another.
The new regulations will enable officials to build up a profile of every web user’s online activity, from shopping to social networking – and if they use a mobile phone to access the internet, the authorities might even be able to track their physical location.
China expert Bill Bishop tweeted that the rules would have a ‘chilling effect’, but added: ‘There is already no anonymity online in china, especially if you use a mobile device on services like Weibo. Government can already find you.’
The new restrictions could also prevent users from accessing Western websites which are banned inside China, such as Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg and the New York Times.
It is currently possible to use a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent the official firewall, but in recent weeks such services have become increasingly difficult to access.
And now that officials will be able to track when web users are deploying VPNs, it could be even harder for Chinese residents to connect to the outside world.
A survey earlier this year indicated that three quarters of companies in the country said the unpredictability of internet regulations made it harder to do business.
Beijing promotes internet use for business and education, but bans material deemed subversive or obscene and blocks access to many websites.
The main ruling party newspaper, People’s Daily, has called in recent weeks for tighter internet controls, saying rumours spread online have harmed the public.
In one case, it said stories about a chemical plant explosion resulted in the deaths of four people in a car accident as they fled the area.
Until recently, web surfers could post comments online or on microblog services without leaving their names, giving ordinary Chinese a unique opportunity to express themselves to a public audience in a society where newspapers, television and other media are state-controlled.
The Internet also has given the public a unique opportunity to publicise accusations of official misconduct.
A local party official in China’s southwest was fired in November after scenes from a videotape of him having sex with a young woman spread quickly on the internet.