China passed rules yesterday requiring people to identify themselves when signing up for Internet and phone services, as the Communist Party tightens control over the world’s largest population of web users.
The law, ratified by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, will enhance protection of personal information online and “safeguard public interests,” the official Xinhua News Agency said. China, home to 550 million web users, censors the Internet by blocking access to websites with pornography, gambling and content critical of Communist Party rule.
The rules may give the party greater control over mobile phone users, as well as microblogs and websites that have become platforms for people to air dissent, rumor and claims of corruption not tolerated in print media. The party’s image was damaged after online activists exposed officials who maintained extramarital affairs, snapped up property and luxury items and covered up allegations of wrongdoing by family members.
“Anti-corruption campaigns online have deeply tarnished the party and the government’s image,and social media discussions have increased instability in certain regions,” said Zhang Zhi’an, an adjunct professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. “Enforcing real name registration will make web users more cautious when posting comments online.”
Under the law, people must give their real names when they sign up for Internet, fixed-phone-line or mobile-phone services. Providers must also require people’s names when allowing them to post information publicly, it said.
One of the proposals under discussion for carrying out the new law is to require users to give their identification-card numbers when they sign up for Internet and mobile-phone services, according to a ministry official who declined to be identified because the information hasn’t been released.
China began requiring microblog users to register their real names at the start of this year, though that order didn’t have the power of a law and social media companies such as Sina Corp., which runs the Weibo microblogging service, haven’t punished users who failed to comply.
“Some people are worried that the law would affect people making criticism and suggestions or uncovering corrupt behavior through the Web,” said Li Fei, a member of the National People’s Congress standing committee. “I think it is not necessary. Citizens have the right to criticize, suggest and appeal to relevant department according to the law.”
“Of course, citizens have to exercise their rights according to law, and can’t violate others’ rights or the nation’s rights as a whole,” he said.
Liu Qi, a Beijing-based spokesman at Sina, didn’t respond to two phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. Huang Yuntao, Shenzhen-based spokesman at Tencent Holdings Ltd. (700), owner of another microblogging site, also didn’t respond to an e-mail.
An editorial in the state-run People’s Daily on Dec. 24 said online freedom must not impinge on the freedoms of others.
“There is no absolute Internet freedom,” the editorial said. “Internet information has its own boundaries -- it must not harm others’ freedom, be subject to moral standards, and comply with laws and regulations.”
Anti-corruption activists have gone online to air claims that brought down government officials. A district party secretary was fired Nov. 23 after a sex tape of him circulated on the Internet, Xinhua said at the time. A Communist Party official, Yang Dacai, was fired after pictures posted online showed him wearing 11 luxury watches at different times, according to Xinhua.
In August, South Korea’s Constitutional Court rejected a 2007 law that required web users to register their real names on Internet forums. The court said the regulation violated people’s privacy and only encouraged Internet users to use overseas websites to circumvent the law.
“Real name registration is an excuse to identify online whistle-blowers,” activist Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti, said in a telephone interview. “It is definitely not a means to protect Web users’ privacy.”
China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, had 550 million Internet users as the end of September, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. That’s more than the entire population of any other country in the world except India.