Can China Prevent Web Pseudonyms? Probably Not

A kiosk that sells SIM cards in Beijing Photograph by Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Chinese Internet cops are at it again. On Dec. 28, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress came out with new regulations forbidding Chinese citizens from using pseudonyms when signing up for Internet service.

The official Xinhua news agency quickly tried to reassure everyone not to worry about any chilling effect on Chinese cyberspace. “Instead of depriving netizens’ freedom and entitlement, the rules protect the legal rights of every Internet user,” Xinhua reported in a commentary helpfully titled “Nothing to fear from new Internet ID policy.” The new rules, Xinhua added, “will ultimately help to create a better online environment in China.”

Given China’s record of censoring blogs, banning YouTube and Facebook, and blocking foreign news sites, not everyone is convinced of the government’s good intentions, of course. “Anti-corruption campaigns online have deeply tarnished the party and the government’s image, and social media discussions have increased instability in certain regions,” Zhang Zhi’an, an adjunct professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, told Bloomberg News. “Enforcing real-name registration will make Web users more cautious when posting comments online.”

It’s far from certain, however, that the Chinese government will be able to succeed in this latest attempt at controlling the Net. To understand why, I spoke today to Mark Natkin, the managing director and founder of Marbridge Consulting, a research firm in Beijing. Natkin says this isn’t the first time Chinese authorities have tried to force Internet users to register using their real names. He’s seen at least three of these campaigns. Indeed, the Xinhua commentary points out that the country’s three telecom operators have required real-name registration since September 2010.

Natkin is waiting to hear specifics about the new requirement before assuming the worst. “How do you enforce it? What are the penalties?” he asks. “If there are no answers to that, there is really no change.”

Earlier moves by authorities to document all of China’s Internet users have had limited impact. For instance, anybody who wants to sign up for fixed-line broadband access has to show ID. Likewise, somebody who goes to a China Mobile store for mobile Internet access has to show papers before getting a new SIM card.

There are lots of other ways to get online in China, though. People can buy SIM cards from the supermarket or from the local newsstand, Natkin says. Even before the government came out with the new rules, those vendors were supposed to be carding would-be Internet customers. Few do, says Natkin. And good luck forcing them to do it now, since these small vendors often don’t have the network infrastructure to verify ID cards and ensure that they’re genuine.

Changing that equation won’t be easy, given how thin the vendors’ margins are. “The amount of money a kiosk can make on a new SIM card or a recharge is small enough—are they now going to go to the extra hassle of checking your ID card, writing down your name, and sending it to the authorities?” he says. “Managing that whole process for an ocean of little kiosks and supermarkets is so enormous a task.”

The government could prevent such vendors from selling SIM cards, but that would cut out an important source of revenue for the country’s three cellular operators, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—all of them owned by the state. Ending sales via kiosks and supermarkets would “be potentially huge hit to the operators,” says Natkin.

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