China’s New Internet Policy: A Blessing or a Hurdle?

China’s policymakers are active in promoting online real-name registration policies, requiring Internet users to disclose their identity and personal information in hopes of creating a more inter-connected society. The increase in Internet supervision has led to discussions on freedom of speech and online privacy. In their academic paper titled “Real-Name Registration Rules and The Fading Digital Anonymity in China,” Jyh-An Lee and Ching-Yi Liu evaluate the limitations, challenges, and spillover effects of China’s consequential and controversial approach.

China’s real-name registration system and “Cybersecurity Law” dictates that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) collect their users’ real names and personal information. Thus, it creates fewer problems for the government to identify Internet users. However, critics are concerned that real-name registration rules are used to prevent Internet users from criticizing the government, which has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Unable to maintain the anonymity that provides protection for dissidents and whistleblowers in China, citizens may hesitate to post or participate in political discussions. In addition, the real-name registration system may further delay the public’s awareness of their rights to free speech and is often cited as an infringement on citizens’ privacy. Recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in identity theft as well as Internet fraud in China. It is rather risky for Internet users to disclose their personal information online. Without reliable technology that protects users’ privacy, the personal information of users is likely to be leaked.

The authors argue that real-name registration policies can neither achieve the original goals to prevent online fraud and moderate activism nor be effectively enforced. For instance, the recent growth of Internet activities in China indicates that online activism did not decrease significantly, despite the implementation of real-name registration rules in 2012. The authors give two possible reasons for such ineffectiveness: first, these policies take a long time to enforce; second, neither the government nor the ISPs want a significant decrease in the number of users, which is a key economic indicator. At the same time, China must be wary of the consequences of strictly enforcing the rules. A shutdown or punishment of non-compliant ISPs may give rise to domestic protests and attract too much unwanted international attention.

ISPs also face hurdles when it comes to enforcing regulation. First, the enormous cost of collecting user data is the main barrier to enforce real-name registration rules. Additionally, without a powerful entity to play the role of an enforcer, it is impossible to verify users’ real names. For instance, users may seek fake identity information or resort to “ID Card Generators” to get around their verification.

However, not everyone believes these policies are harmful. According to the authors, despite the ineffectiveness of the real-name registration rules in China, these rules may have important policy implications for global Internet governance. It is possible that China will continue cooperating with major Internet companies to advance its policies. They also believe that China’s policy could have spillover effects. For example, many other countries are now considering implementing policies that regulate the Internet. Several key Internet platforms such as Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn have also shown interest in real-name registration and are developing more effective verification technologies that China does not presently have.

The current state of the real-name registration rules in China demands meticulous observation from government and civil society along with comprehensive policy analysis to address potential limitations, challenges, and implications. However, the article fails to empirically analyze some of its assertions such as the correlation between identity theft and the implementation of real-name registration rules. Spillover effects also need to be analyzed using data to assess the causal relationship between the intended effects and regulations. The findings of this article reflect a greater need for research into Internet regulation and autonomy.

Article source: Lee, Jyh-An and Liu, Ching-Yi. “Real-Name Registration Rules and the Fading Digital Anonymity in China.Washington International Law Journal (2016).

Featured photo: cc/(monsitj, photo ID: 629285904, from iStock by Getty Images)

Zack He
Zack (MPP 18’) is a staff writer for Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in Higher Education as well as Technology Development.

Comments are closed.