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China to require real name registration for Internet users

The Chinese government will soon require Internet users to register their real names with their ISPs. Should mobile and Internet users worry?
December 30, 2012

This issue has been discussed before, and has been considered as an affront to the freedoms that Internet users enjoy. But this is China, and it’s a regime that’s a unique mix of forward-looking innovation and limiting restrictions. The latest issue that Chinese Internet users might need to be concerned about: real name registration.

One big issue at the recent International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference was that restrictive governments want tighter control over Internet use and the flow of information. While that particular proposition had been nipped at the bud — thanks to Google and other big companies voicing out their side, not to mention that the U.S. does not want such regulatory moves — Internet freedom is here to stay. That is if you’re not in China.

The country, after all, is known for its so-called “Great Firewall of China,” in which access to services that can be used for dissent is blocked. There is no Facebook, Twitter nor YouTube in China, as well as several Google services, although local alternatives thrive because of this very limitation.

It’s not the same as the Internet at large, though, where everyone can have a voice without being silenced or censored. Government is planning to mandate that all Internet users register using their real names. Sina Weibo — China’s biggest microblogging service — has been doing this since earlier this year. However, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) has made a proposal that will require anyone who goes online to identify themselves with their real names on an ISP level.

It’s not all that bad, at least from the government’s perspective. The provision also plans to combat abuse, such as spam — particularly sending business-related content to email accounts and mobile phones without user consent. The provisions also give users a mechanism for reporting abuse.

Also, real name are registered with the ISP, and users can still register anonymous accounts with social networking services and microblogs. Li Fei, director of the committee’s Commission on Legislative affairs assures Chinese Internet users that the identity management “could be conducted backstage,” adding that users can still “use different names when publicizing information.”

Chinese bloggers already use code-names and coded messages when posting information online, though. But even with such anonymity, messages and posts can still be traced back to one’s real identity once registration is enforced. There is no word on when this government mandate will take effect. But one thing is for sure: with almost 600 million Internet users in the country, this would be one big task for government and ISPs to handle.

And given that a good majority of Chinese Internet users get online through mobile devices, this piece of news should also be relevant to those using smartphones and tablets.

Should Chinese Internet users worry? Going beyond regional concerns, should users elsewhere worry that their governments might soon require real-name registration before gaining access to Internet services? To some extent, users in the U.S. already do, for instance — particularly those that go online from mobile data plans with contracts or other post-paid wireline services. Should this be any different?