China Bans Anonymous Online Comments in 'Game-Changing' Move For Its Internet Users

2017-08-28
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China Network Management Police check an internet cafe in Beijing, in a file photo.
China Network Management Police check an internet cafe in Beijing, in a file photo.
AFP

China's powerful Cyberspace Administration has issued a set of new restrictions barring the country's more than 730 million internet users from making anonymous online comments.

Any online service provider offering users the opportunity to comment on news stories or to message each other on a social media "thread" is now requested to collect information about the identities of such commentators, the agency said in a set of new rules issued on its website on Friday.

"The service provider shall ... implement background and real-name checks and authenticate the identities of registered users," the rules state.

"Barrage style comments should also be offered with a static version of the information content," it said.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is stepping up its control of all forms of public opinion ahead of its politically sensitive 19th Party Congress, expected in October.

The move is also in line with a stricter online regime ushered in by the cybersecurity law, which took effect in June.

The Cyberspace Administration has also banned any online content that "contravenes basic principles," including anything judged to "endanger national security," "damage national honor and interests," or "incite ethnic hatred and discrimination or undermine ethnic unity."

The authorities have typically used accusations linked to national honor or security to target activists posting satirical comments about the party leadership, or those who tweet about breaking news from the scene.

The price of truth

Real-name registration is nothing new in China, but determined users have usually managed to evade it until now.

But internet service providers are increasingly being asked to police users on behalf of the government, on pain of official sanctions.

An anonymous Internet user told RFA that the moves could mean that people are too afraid to say what they really mean online in the future.

"In the absence of this policy, users were able to comment boldly and express their true thoughts," the user said. "If you read some of the threads now, they are still very exciting to read."

"But when this is implemented, many people may not dare to be so outspoken. The price of speaking the truth is very high, and some of my friends have been targeted for retaliation after speaking out, including being detained or invited to 'drink tea' [with state security police]," the user said.

"They don't want people publishing critical comments online."

Francis Fong, Honorary President of the Hong Kong Information Technology Association, said the new rules could mean it that it becomes much harder for China's internet users to remain anonymous online.

The rules will also place a heavy burden on service providers, he said.

"In the past, online culture was anonymous, but gradually we have this step-by-step approach [targeting] the service providers," Fong said.

"The impact of the real-name system will be very far-reaching, and it will change all the rules of the game completely."

But he said there still may be some leeway if only a home phone number is required, as opposed to the names and addresses of individual users.

Sovereign cyberspace

Official media hit out at criticism of China's ever-tightening online controls, saying it hasn't stifled innovation.

"Not only China, but many other countries, including the U.S. and many European countries, have been strengthening control over the internet for national security reasons," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling party, quoted internet expert Shen Yi as saying.

"The idea of sovereignty also applies to cyberspace, and countries have a right to implement policies to govern their own cyberspace," Shen said, echoing a key policy of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

According to Shen, China's online censorship is a defensive measure which is prompted by threats from hostile foreign forces in cyberspace, mainly from the U.S., the paper reported.

Henan rights activist Xiao Biao said the move forms part of ever-increasing controls on public freedom of expression.

"These are very strict controls, and there may be people who would like to take an interest and comment on current affairs, but for family or professional reasons don't want to use their real name," he said.

"I think that [this system] will create fear among internet users and limit their participation."

The real-name registration requirement will take effect from Oct. 1.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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