China’s legislature has approved new rules that will tighten government control of the Internet by requiring users to register their real names, and demanding Internet companies censor online material.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency says lawmakers approved the measures Friday at the closing meeting of a five-day session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
Beijing says the regulations are aimed at protecting the personal information of Web users and cracking down on abuses such as junk e-mail. The rules also aim to “safeguard national security and social public interests,” according to Xinhua. They have the same legal effect as a law.
China has long tried to get Internet users to register their real names rather than pseudonyms with service providers, but with half a billion netizens, the task has been an uphill battle. The new regulations aim to change that and, for the first time, lay the written groundwork to police companies that are not complying with the government’s censorship policies.
Identity protection or censorship?
The decision says network service providers will “strengthen management of information released by users” by instantly stopping the transmission of “illegal information” once it is spotted and by taking relevant measures. Those measures, Xinhua reports, include removing the information and saving records, before reporting it to authorities.
The rules did not say what constitutes illegal information.
Beijing has a complex information management system that includes blocking foreign websites like YouTube and Facebook, censoring Internet searches for sensitive words and phrases and deploying an army of bloggers to steer online discourse away from potentially volatile political and social issues.
Despite that, the growth of China’s Internet has lead to a growth in online calls for reform. Complaints on Chinese microblogs about corruption, abuse of power, human rights violations and environmental pollution have led to action offline, including street protests and the dismissal or resignation of corrupt officials.
Human rights and free speech advocates say real-name registration will curtail people's ability to report, often anonymously, corruption and official abuses.
Li Fei, a Standing Committee member, dismissed those concerns Friday at a news conference in Beijing.
"We still call on the public to expose any corruption by all means after the law comes out," he said. "The illegal and corrupted will be punished.”
Online chatter about a string of sex and financial scandals has led to the downfall of several local officials in recent weeks.
Duncan Clark, a Beijing-based consultant and a senior adviser to Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, said China seems to be trying to strike a balance between information control and government accountability.
"We’ve seen for a long time the Internet being used to expose corruption but what’s been interesting in the recent few weeks, which may be a counter current to these new crackdowns on the Internet, is a lot of this has been followed up,” he said, describing the Internet as a “scary thing” for many officials who don’t want their actions questioned.
The new normal?
The latest Internet regulations come amid a crackdown on virtual private networks, or VPNs, which Web users need to get around China’s so-called “Great Firewall.”
Chinese officials say there has been no change in the policy toward VPN providers, which they say must be registered with the government. But the move has caused an uproar among Chinese netizens, as well as foreign companies and journalists who say the crackdown is preventing them from doing their jobs.
Clark said there is often a spike in Internet controls around sensitive events, like the recent 18th Communist Party Congress that elected China’s new generation of leaders. He said after such events, there is a general lack of enforcement, followed by another drive ahead of another big event. But this time is different, he said.
“Since the Party Congress, we’ve seen increased measures, not lessened,” Clark said. “So the big question ... is, when we get to the spring of next year, when the new leadership takes up the formal positions in the new government, is this the new normal?”
Additional reporting by Victor Beattie.