China Tightens Internet Regulation

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress has issued new rules “to enhance the protection of personal information online and safeguard public interests”. The regulations broaden and reinforce requirements for real-name registration by internet users (though pseudonyms will still be permitted), and establish a legal requirement for service providers to immediately remove illegal information and report it to the relevant authorities. The move follows evident recent activity on the technical front, and has widely been read as an omen for the new Party leadership’s future rule. From Rob McBride at Al Jazeera English:

The rules had been heralded by a series of editorials in state media, including one from People’s Daily Online which framed the issue of internet regulation in terms of rule of law. From David Bandurski’s translation at China Media Project:

The internet is public space, and public order and good customs require the common efforts of web users, demanding that each web users “purify themselves” (自我净化), recognizing from the bottom of their hearts that the internet is not a utopia where they can do as they please, that it is not a “Garden of Peaches of Immortality” [i.e., a paradise] existing outside the law. But on this massive platform comprising 538 million web users and more than a billion mobile users, it is impossible byrelying on self-discipline alone to achieve regulation and order (规范有序) and to eliminate every single person with ulterior motives (别有用心者) or every doer of mischief (恶作剧者).

Without wings, the bird of freedom cannot fly high. Without rule of law, a free internet cannot go far. Today’s society reveres rule of law, and just as our actual society needs rule of law, so does our virtual society need rule of law. Cleaning up the online world demands the self-discipline of web users, but even more it demands the interventionist discipline (他律) of rule of law. Only by putting the “binds” of rule of law on the internet, by stipulating the lines of conduct and adding supervision according to the law (厘定行为边界,依法加以监管), only by making violators of the law bear the burden of illegality [as opposed to victims of crimes], only then can we possibly restrain irresponsible rumors, restrain the leakage of personal information, and make the internet clean again.

Following the Standing Committee’s decision, state media have emphasised provisions to protect privacy, and denied that the rules are aimed at suppressing netizens’ celebrated exposure of official wrongdoing. From Gui Tao and Huang Xin at Xinhua:

Online muckraking is not necessarily incompatible with a requirement to provide genuine identification. Many whistleblowers prefer to use their real names, as they feel this will give their claims more weight.

Other reports state that the identity policy will clamp down on the freedom of speech in Chinese cyberspace. But the accusers should know that freedom without limits or responsibility is chaotic and dangerous. No one should enjoy the freedom to spread malicious rumors or libel, even online. The rule should only be feared by slanderers who wish to take advantage of online anonymity.

For law-abiding netizens, the rules passed on Friday will only better safeguard their lawful rights and privacy. The rules, which stress the protection of Internet users’ privacy, stipulate that citizens have the rights to demand service providers to delete online information that discloses their identities or infringes upon their own rights.

[…] Instead of depriving netizens’ freedom and entitlement, the rules protect the legal rights of every Internet user. The rules will ultimately help to create a better online environment in China.

Global Times aimed for a similarly reassuring tone:

Overall, the Chinese Internet is free and responsible, but also has moments of chaos and illegal activity. Infringements upon people’s rights and privacy can easily be found on the Internet. The new legislation, in this regard, is likely to become a turning point in terms of online regulation. Most of its 12 articles respond to the high expectations of the public for changes to the Chinese Internet.

Of course, there are concerns. Despite its chaotic nature, the Internet has been playing a role as a supervisor of the government from the bottom up. As a truly effective and tough supervision mechanism has yet to be formed within the system, supervision from the Internet is important to make up for it. This is a huge contribution the Internet has made to China’s construction of democracy, and no one wants to see it weakened.

In reality, there is no crackdown on the public’s supervision via the Internet, because this wouldn’t help China’s progress.

But meanwhile, we cannot simply cover up all the problems of the Internet just because it dares to criticize. There is urgent need for the Internet to have order, and this cannot be achieved through moral self-discipline only, but requires assistance from the law.

Xinhua’s Gui and Huang also played down the significance of the new real-name rules, arguing that many such requirements already exist. But according to The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher, they are now likely to become both more widespread and more strictly enforced.

Any entity providing Internet access, including over fixed-line or mobile phones, “should when signing agreements with users or confirming provision of services, demand that users provide true information about their identities,” the committee ordered.

[…] The regulations issued Friday build on a series of similar administrative guidelines and municipal rules issued over the past year. China’s mostly private Internet service providers have been slow to comply with them, fearing the reactions of their customers. The committee’s decision has much greater legal force, and puts far more pressure on Chinese Internet providers to comply more quickly and more comprehensively, Internet specialists said.

[…] The requirement for real names appeared to be aimed particularly at cellphone companies and other providers of mobile Internet access. At the news conference, an official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Zhao Zhiguo, said that nearly all fixed-line services now had real-name registration, but that only about 70 percent of mobile phones were registered under real names.

Whether or not the new rules stem the flow of online exposés, argued NPR’s Frank Langfitt, “it’s also clear that muckrakers can only aim so high.”

LANGFITT: […] Luo Changping is deputy editor of Caijing, one of China’s more aggressive and independent magazines. Earlier this month, he posted on his Chinese Twitter account allegations about a high-ranking official in Beijing. Luo said the official had fabricated his masters’ degree and helped defraud Chinese banks. So far, Luo says, the charges have gone nowhere. […] Many domestic media are not allowed to report on this case, he said, and frankly, Luo was hesitant to discuss it.

CHANGPING: (Through translator) My phones certainly have been monitored, including my office phone, home phone and cell phone. I can feel that. Sometimes phones will be cut off, and you can hear echoes.

LANGFITT: Luo says without the rule of law and a truly open press, piecemeal exposes can only do so much. He’s not optimistic. […] If there are no systematic changes, he says, I think fighting corruption on a case-by-case basis doesn’t have much effect. It’s really just a power struggle between officials.