free speech in chinaOn December 28, 2012, the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress approved rules requiring websites that host user generated content to verify the real identity of their users. These rules, while not new, may nonetheless lead to the disappearance of the last free space on China’s internet by eliminating anonymity, which is vital in a society where freedom of speech does not otherwise exist.

While the new rules include measures regarding the protection of user personal information and limits on unsolicited advertisements sent to user’s mobile phones or email addresses, it is the real name registration requirement that has attracted the most attention. This is largely due to the dramatic rise of Sina’s Weibo, a Twitter-like service that has grown to over 400 million registered users since its launch in August 2009.

Weibo, and competitors like Tencent’s Weixin, have challenged China’s ubiquitous censors due to the massive amounts of posts (100 million per day for Weibo) and the speed with which information travels through reposts and comments. Although the censors use key word filtering systems to block posts that transgress the constantly revised list of off-limits topics, clever use of homonyms (which the Chinese language lends itself to) further frustrates the censor’s difficult task. Weibo’s influence in breaking news stories and exposing corruption is so pronounced that foreign press outlets like the BBC and academic institutions like Yale University have posted articles focused on how Weibo is changing China.

Real name registration could change all of this.

In 2000, Bill Clinton said that China’s attempt to control the internet was like trying to nail jello to the wall. Thirteen years later, however, there are very large slabs of jello nailed to the Great Firewall of China. The government has achieved a significant degree of control over its corner of the Internet through a variety of means, including control over the key access points where China’s internet connects with the global internet and sophisticated filtering mechanisms that block access to undesirable content from outside the firewall.

Inside the firewall, China has tackled the censorship problem in part through the devolution of responsibility, holding each website operator accountable for all content that it hosts, including user generated content. As a result, Sina is held responsible for the content that users post on Weibo and therefore must implement its own filtering system to block and delete posts that the government might find objectionable. Because private Internet companies operating in China do so at the discretion of the government, each Internet company is itself one brick in the Great Firewall, working diligently to carry out the government censorship directives and thereby protect its own business.

With real name registration, the devolution of responsibility extends beyond the website operators and reaches individual users. When each Weibo post becomes tied to an identified person, then each individual user will be more likely to practice self-censorship with respect to their own posts.

Even without real name registration for user generated content websites, true anonymity on China’s internet does not exist for most users. When registering for home or business internet access, real name registration is already required. Seventy percent of mobile phone users also register with their real names according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the new rules suggest that the anonymous prepaid mobile phone cards will be phased out. Internet cafés are also required to record the real identity of each user. As a result, unless someone posting on Weibo is being very careful, the government already has the means to identify the author of an unwanted post. The six people arrested in connection with spreading rumors of a coup attempt in the spring of 2012 discovered this fact the hard way.

To achieve self-censorship, however, the users must first understand that they can and will be held accountable for the content they post. As a result, it would not be surprising to see implementation of real name registration accompanied by publicity campaigns and a number of high profile prosecutions for posting illegal content.

The rules published last week are not, however, the first to require real name registration for Internet users in China. In December 2011 the municipality of Beijing issued rules requiring microblogging websites located in the northern capital to verify the identity of all of their users by March 16, 2012. Sina’s Weibo is subject to these rules, but the company disclosed in its annual report on April 27, 2012, that they have not fully implemented the measures. In addition, as of the date of this article it is still possible to register a Weibo account and post content without providing real name registration information.

In April 2007, China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, a key regulator of the Internet, issued regulations requiring real name registration for online game accounts in order to implement anti-fatigue rules designed to prevent minors from playing games for more than five hours at a time. Nearly six years later, however, these rules have not been fully implemented and users can still register online game accounts without providing real name registration information.

Will anything be different with this latest set of real name registration rules? The answer is probably yes.

This new rules were issued by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, which has a higher position in the official government structure than both the municipality of Beijing and the General Administration of Press and Publication. As a result, the issuance of these rules suggests not only that China’s leadership at the highest levels support the rules, but that those same top leaders are paying attention to the issue of anonyms Weibo posts. With such high level focus, China’s internet users should expect a much greater effort to fully implementation real name registration this time.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]