China's mounting crackdown on online news dissemination took an extra step today, when the country's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, its de facto legislative body, announced new requirements on Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to identify their users. The new rules would potentially allow ISPs and the authorities to more closely tie real identities to posts and commentary on micro-blogging sites like Weibo, as well as connect text messaging and mobile phone conversations to individuals.
The announcement follows a series of new restrictions on Internet access in the country, including the blocking of virtual private network (VPN) connections used to evade the "Great Firewall;" the blocking of major foreign news sites' reporting on Chinese leaders; and censoring discussions on domestic social media. The timing of the new steps is particularly troubling to those who anticipated that restrictions would ease after the Communist Party's National Congress in November, where new leaders were appointed, The New York Times notes.
Demanding real names for mobile phone users and even websites is not unique to China, but it seems unlikely that the reasons that the Chinese authorities gave--to protect against cybercriminals--are the entirety of the thinking behind the ruling.
"Nowadays on the Internet there are very serious problems with citizens' personal electronic information being recklessly collected, used without approval, illegally disclosed, and even traded and sold," the Times quoted a member of the Standing Committee as saying.
But China's new rules will hardly improve matters. In fact, real identity systems exacerbate the problem, by requiring users to upload the identity information and documents that others can use to commit fraud.
South Korea passed a law in 2004 requiring all forums to collect the state resident registration numbers (the equivalent of a U.S. Social Security number) of their users. In August 2011, hackers broke into the system used to verify the numbers, and obtained the personal details, including the resident registration numbers, of 35 million people, around 70% of the entire population. The companies involved blamed Chinese hackers. The rule was later struck down by the Korean Supreme Court as an unconstitutional restraint on free speech. In 2010, Mexico retroactively required all of its mobile phone users to provide their personal details with the carrier. Shortly after the deadline for registration passed, copies of the official databases--including the names and home addresses of police officers--were found for sale at Mexico City's Tepito flea market.
China's state media attempted to head off critics of the new policy, while conceding that it would be used to target online conversations. "Reports state that the identity policy will clamp down on the freedom of speech in Chinese cyberspace," said China's English-language Xinhua News Agency, "But the accusers should know that freedom without limits or responsibility is chaotic and dangerous... The rule should only be feared by slanderers who wish to take advantage of online anonymity."