On November 28 the chairman of the Internet Society of China said China was in the process of exploring and testing a system of “limited real-name registration” for the Internet capable of “balancing personal privacy, the public good and the national interests”. The announcement was an attempt to calm controversy over a proposed system many Web users feer could destroy the vitality of the Chinese Internet and trample the limited but growing speech freedoms online platforms provide in China, where the very idea of personal expression in a public forum is in its infancy.
This weekend, an editorial in China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Youth League, said the debate over the proposed real-name Web registration system in China, while “animated”, had shown an unprecedented degree of civility, with emotions less prominent and more “reasoned criticisms approaching [the question] from a technological standpoint”. There is no clear indication yet as to whether the debate happening in traditional media and online will forestall or otherwise impact the registration system, but the frankness of the debate could itself be read as encouraging.
The China Youth Daily editorial is translated in full below:
“Real-name Web Registration System Should Go Forward Only With Extreme Caution”
China Youth Daily
December 3, 2006
Recently the Internet Society of China has proposed trying out a limited real-name registration system for the Web, so that when a user registers their account with a blog or bulletin board (BBS) site, they must provide their identity card, other necessary documents, their real surname, etc. But when they are onstage (在前台) they may use whatever name pleases them. This proposal has brought animated discussion from a number of quarters.
The real-name Internet registration system first became a hot topic in 2003 after a conversation involving Tsinghua University professor Li Xiguang was leaked, in which he advised the People’s Congress to prohibit anonymity online and roll out an Internet real-name registration system. At the time this proposition was strongly opposed by the vast majority of Web users. In recent years, as space on the Web and the population of Internet users has grown by leaps and bounds, the role of the Web in [China’s] daily work culture has become more obvious by the day. A number of things have also smeared the Web and had an increasingly negative impact — for example, insults and attacks appearing on a number of Web forums and blogs, pornographic materials hidden on personal Websites, etc. Given this situation and in the name of better regulating behavior on the Internet, the [idea of] a real-name registration for the Internet has floated to the surface again. Like before, [differing views on this issue] are at a deadlock. But what is different now is that the debate is so hot it burns one’s brain. Still, emotions are less a factor, and more people are offering reasoned criticisms approaching [the question] from a technological standpoint.
Lately, the Internet has entered a period of rapid growth. If the rules for the Internet are changed suddenly, this might actually worsen the situation. It can be said that the original beauty of the Internet lies in its anonymity. “Online, no one knows that you’re a dog”, “small dogs can bark as loudly as big ones” — these basic principles of the Web are the source of its vitality. They safeguard its vital force. But [the idea of] “anonymity onstage, true identity offstage”, while it may seem to allow Web users to avoid facing most people [online] using their own identities, [while it may seem] to preserve their freedom to write, actually means that at no time and in no place will they be free of scrutiny from a set of strange eyes. This [real-name registration] means essentially that the virtual world is dragged into the real world, and Web users forfeit the possibility of flying freely. What’s more, the creative potential of the Internet and the thirst to express oneself are both thrown into question.
If a real-name registration system for the Web is now implemented, and Web users must register in blogs and online forums, offering up their actual identity card numbers, surnames, addresses and other information, how is their safety to be ensured? Currently, there are more than 100,000 Websites available to the [Chinese] people. How will the government carry out its oversight of this vast group? And what government office is going to take responsibility in the event the personal information of Web users is compromised? We already have real examples of this in cases where Websites have sold the personal information of users for profit, doing damage to users’ legal rights. Because of the loss of personal information, people are now routinely pestered by commercial businesses [spam], their personal accounts plundered, the information on their computers pilfered, their personal privacy thrown to the winds – the problems are numerous. Considering the current state of the Internet and the management capacity of relevant [government] authorities, it would be difficult to avoid the abovementioned conditions [should a real-name system be put in place]. The plug all of the loopholes, moreover, would require significant resources and a great deal of time.
Aside from these [considerations], what is to ensure that once the Internet real-name registration system is put in place and the official notice sent out people will register their identities according to regulations? If [the system] doesn’t mean people have to go out and register in person, then what’s to prevent Zhang Three from using Li Four’s name to register? In today’s world, where honesty is not in plentiful supply, I’m afraid a real-name Internet registration system will descend into [worthless] formalities. And if registering for Web use requires us to register in the same way as we would to open bank accounts, well then how much more does that ratchet up the superfluous costs [of such a system]?
Summing up various opinions [on the topic] we can come to a conclusion about the long-term development of the Internet: before we are able to adequately eliminate the negative affects the real-name registration is likely to bring, the real-name Internet registration system can only go forward with great caution. Well then, can we think in some other way about how to address the original intention of better regulating Internet culture? Researching the current state of the Internet, we find that the vast majority of those expressing themselves through blogs or online forums are basically conducting themselves in a civil and ethical manner. They go online in order to get information, interact with their friends, come into contact with ideas, and to varying degrees they are able to find what they’re looking for. Only a very few people issue verbal attacks, or physical threats. But even this has to be looked at from two aspects. [First of all] if language of this kind is limited, then in the short term it does not pose serious spiritual [psychological] harm or have widespread impact – well then, let’s leave that issue to the Website operators and Web authorities (网管). [Secondly] if their language has already transgressed the limits of the law, endangering personal rights or social stability, then using technology already at hand, law enforcement authorities have sufficient means at their disposal to weed out these harmful elements and deal with them according to the law. That is to say, promoting [the idea of] taking responsibility for one’s language and ensuring order on the Web can be thoroughly accomplished through other technological means. It’s not necessarily the case that we must use the double-edge sword of a real-name Web registration system.
[Posted by David Bandurski, December 6, 2006, 1:07pm]