Privacy Implications of the Chinese Network Real Name System

// Dr. Hu Yong critiques legislation in China that requires Internet users to utilize their full names and obligates Internet Service Providers to report on any illegal actions by an individual online.

On December 28th 2012, the 30th Standing Committee session of China’s Eleventh National People’s Congress passed the Decision on Improving Network Information Protection. This new law, passed after an extensive period of preparation and regional experiments, established the Network Real Name System. Internet access providers must now require their customers to provide their real names and legitimate identifications in order to sign up for internet service, mobile internet access, or to register on a blog or other website. Service providers are also responsible for monitoring and preventing illegal activities by users.

Details regarding the law’s implementation are still being discussed at local and national levels. The task is proving to be difficult as legislators are unsure how to supervise internet access providers and how to decide exactly what actions are illegal. The decision itself does not provide the regulatory guidelines necessary, nor does it allow access providers to make their own judgments regarding the handling of sensitive user information.

This new decision legalized internet content censorship and reinforces the obligation of internet service providers (ISPs) to report user actions to the authorities. Article Five provides that ISPs should strengthen the management of users when they post information online. When illegal or prohibited information is found online, ISPs are to stop transmitting information and begin taking their own initiatives such as deleting or censoring information, storing related records, and then reporting the information to a relevant department of government.

The decision has increased the power of Chinese ISPs to block, intercept, discriminate, and prohibit users’ right to access information on the Internet. It may also prohibit users’ right to transmit information, software, lawful service and initiatives. The decision also implies that government has further shared supervising responsibility with internet access providers, which may be called “privatization of supervision.” This privatization of enforcement creates concern that individual internet users may be punished for activities not only by the government, but also by their ISPs.

The decision to remove anonymity from internet activities stems in part from the association between Internet criminal activity and anonymity. Individuals who create viruses, junk emails, scams, and start political rumors rely on anonymity to avoid consequences.

On the other hand, this association is also constructed purposefully by the authorities. For instance, a commentary on the front page of People’s Daily on Dec 18th 2012, “Internet Is Not Outside of Law,” warned internet users to be cautious in terms of their expressions. The commentary implied that, due to the increasing reach and simplicity of internet use, individuals act carelessly without thinking about possible outcomes with online actions and statements thatare subject to the law.

In early 2012, microblogging services (called Weibo in China) mandated that all account holders use their full names, causing an uproar among users. The Director of the  State Internet Information Office, Wang Chen, explained that, “microblogging has changed the pattern of public opinion in China, but it is also easy to make some irrational voices and negative public opinion and harmful information to spread rapidly.”

According to statistics, 150 million Weibo posts are made in China on a daily basis. How many of them are “irrational voices, negative public opinion and harmful information?” While real name registration might limit the activities of pornography disseminators, liars, and false evidence planters, it also infringes upon the rights of the majority of users.

It’s true that anonymity has its drawbacks, but the value it generates balances out its costs. Governments should not try to limit anonymity; it would be better for internet communities to determine anonymous system based on their preferences and functions. Esther Dyson’s book Release 2.0 lists many potential reasons users may prefer to remain anonymous, which include discussing personal problems, testing out new identities, or questioning an unfair system.

Over-monitoring from the government is a threat to netizen rights in China. This decision may lead to the violation of privacy, identity theft, or a violation of freedom of speech as guaranteed by China’s own constitution.

An editorial in The Global Times argued that it is unnecessary to worry that these regulations will prevent individuals from using the internet to reveal corruption or criticize the government, because Chinese citizens have become increasingly vocal and less fearful. Yet, Chinese citizens have still expressed anger and concern regarding the new legislation. For example, veteran internet observer, Xie Wen, remarks:

 “People are just saying that corruption will ruin the party and the state, then there emerges a voice that internet will ruin the party and the state; people are just saying that we should strengthen the supervision of government power, then somebody wants to strengthen the supervision of the internet; people are just saying that officials should make their assets public, then some departments are making netizens’ names public … who is going against the flow?”

There exists a conflict between the need for social transparency and the right for individual privacy and anonymous speech. Anonymity is actually related to the tolerance of society: the ability to embrace diversity and the possibility of personal spaces. Increasingly, a great deal of private behavior is now highly visible via the internet, forcing us to question the extent to which society is able to tolerate these privacy violations

What the government attempts to execute with regard to cyberspace is control-based law rather than rights-based law. In the past, the government always exerted control in the name of “protection”. For instance, the infamous Green Dam Youth Escort filtering program, which the government attempted to implement in 2009, attempted to control users’ security, privacy, information flow and right of selection under the cover of “protecting juveniles from pornography.”

The difference between rights-based law and control-based law is very simple: if it is a rights-based law, it is designed to restrict government—it does not allow government to rule without limitations; if it is a control-based law, then it is designed to restrict netizens – it limits the scope of free expression. “Restrict government first” is the basic principle for a society governed by rule of law; government power is supervised and regulated, while civil rights are maintained and protected. However, until now, nearly all the cyber laws and regulations in China are control-based.

During the legislative process, there was no channel for citizens to participate in the decision making process. The official mass media has always endorsed non-transparent and non-democratic legislation, and this case is no exception. Prior to the final decision, official mass media propagated that “netizens asked for legislation to protect network information.”

The decision is not based on public consultation or consent, and its purpose is to control, not protect, citizens’ rights and interests.

//Dr. Hu Yong, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University, is a new media critic.


Featured Photo Credit: User Mike1024 on en.wikipedia

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