News Web sites in China, complying with secret government orders, are requiring that new users log on under their true identities to post comments, a shift in policy that the country’s Internet users and media have fiercely opposed in the past.
Until recently, users could weigh in on news items on many of the affected sites more anonymously, often without registering at all, though the sites were obligated to screen all posts, and the posts could still be traced via Internet protocol addresses.
But in early August, without notification of a change, news portals like Sina, Netease, Sohu and scores of other sites began asking unregistered users to sign in under their real names and identification numbers, said top editors at two of the major portals affected. A Sina staff member also confirmed the change.
The editors said the sites were putting into effect a confidential directive issued in late July by the State Council Information Office, one of the main government bodies responsible for supervising the Internet in China.
The new step is not foolproof, the editors acknowledged. It was possible for a reporter to register successfully on several major sites under falsified names and ID and cellphone numbers.
But the requirement adds a critical new layer of surveillance to mainstream sites in China, which were already heavily policed. Further regulations of the same nature also appeared to be in the pipeline.
And while the authorities called the measure part of a drive to forge greater “social responsibility” and “civility” among users, they moved forward surreptitiously and suppressed reports about it, said the editors and others in the media industry familiar with the measure, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid putting their jobs at risk.
Asked why the policy was pushed through unannounced, the chief editor of one site said, “The influence of public opinion on the Net is still too big.”
Government Internet regulators have been trying to usher in real-name registration controls since 2003, when they ordered Internet cafes around China to demand that customers show identification, nominally to keep out minors. Last year, lawmakers and regulators began discussing legislation on a more extensive “real name system,” as it is known.
But such proposals have aroused heated debate over the purview of the state to restrict China’s online community, which is the largest in the world at about 340 million people and growing.
Proponents, led by officials and state-connected academics in the information security field, argue that mandatory controls are necessary to help subdue inflammatory attacks, misinformation and other illegal activity deemed to endanger social order. They often note registration requirements on large sites in South Korea to support their point.
Critics counter that government regulation represents an incursion on free speech, individual privacy and the watchdog role of the Web in China.
The critics say sites and users should retain the right to discipline themselves. Given the country’s huge population of Internet users and its failure to guarantee freedom of expression, they argue, the case of China is hardly analogous to that of South Korea.
In 2006, Internet users and the news media rebuffed one official proposal to require real-name registration on blog hosting sites. Star bloggers denounced the notion, while ordinary users overwhelmingly rejected it in surveys conducted on sites like Sina.
In another key test of the policy earlier this year, the legislature in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, passed a regulation that would have placed the requirement on users who comment, blog or play games on sites based there. Amid a popular outcry, however, the city shied away from enforcing the regulation.
Central authorities have gone to new lengths to tame online activity in 2009, a year peppered with politically delicate anniversaries.
Government censors have closed thousands of sites in a continuing war on “vulgarity,” closed liberal forums and blogs for spreading “harmful information,” blocked access to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and cut off Internet service where serious unrest has erupted, notably in the Xinjiang region of the west after deadly clashes between ethnic Uighurs and Han in July. Increasingly, officials have defended the Web shutdowns on the grounds of national security.
The government recently set off an international furor when it ordered that all computers sold in China come prepackaged with pornography filtering software that authorities could remotely control. Officials were forced to retreat from the order after international companies and trade bodies protested and Chinese hackers showed that the software was designed to block politically offensive content as well.
The authorities had aimed to avoid a similar showdown over the new real-name requirement. “We had no recourse to challenge it,” said the news editor of another portal.
Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper loyal to Beijing, first leaked news of the State Council edict in late July. But the report was scrubbed from the paper’s Web site within a few days.
Another state newspaper tried to follow up on the Ta Kung Pao report soon thereafter, the paper’s editors said, but they were forced to abort their article because they were warned that the order was a state secret.
The State Council Information Office had yet to respond to a list of submitted questions about the move.
The new mandate did not appear to affect formerly registered users of the portals. Nor did it affect blog hosts, forums or government news sites like People’s Daily or Xinhua.
Whether because it had an impact mainly on rookie users or because of the void of news about it, bloggers in China were unusually slow to recognize the measure. But those who did were critical.
One commentator on the popular forum Tianya wrote, “Not daring to write one’s real name, in truth, is a form of self-protection for the weak.”
There were signals in the state media in recent weeks that more name registration measures would follow.
An influential advocate of the policy, Fang Bingxing, the president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told a forum in August that the “time was ripe” to roll it out widely to bolster information security, newspapers reported.
A trail of comments on Sina thrashed the report.
Late last month, the Communist Party-run Guangming Daily ran a positive story about a city government portal in western China that imposed the requirement on new bloggers, calling it a “forerunner.”
Hu Yong, a new media specialist at Peking University, said government-enforced registration requirements carried long-term side effects.
“Netizens will have less trust in the government, and to a certain extent, the development of the industry will be impeded,” he said.
From a comparison of the most commented-on articles in July and August on a number of portals it was hard to determine whether the volume of posts had been affected so far.
But both editors at two of the major portals affected said their sites had shown marked drop-offs. –NYT