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Targeting people online

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMarch 2, 2015

China has introduced new rules requiring Internet users to use their real names when registering for online accounts. A move Rogier Creemers views as another attempt by the authorities to control the Chinese cyberspace.

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Image: Getty Images

Since March 1, new regulations have been in place in China banning Internet accounts that impersonate people or organizations. The ban includes accounts that purport to be government bodies, as well as foreign leaders, such as US President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said on its website.

The agency justified the new rules, saying such accounts had been accused of being misleading, having links to terrorism, or involving violence, pornography and other violations. Instead, users are now required to use their real names when registering for an online account.

Shortly before the new regulations took effect, the CAC reported that some of China's largest Internet companies - including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, Tencent Holdings Ltd, Baidu Inc, Sina Corp affiliate Weibo Corp - deleted more than 60,000 online accounts because of misleading user names.

In a DW interview Rogier Creemers, a researcher on Chinese media law at the University of Oxford, says that they are another step by China's powerful Internet regulation that indicates a strengthening intent to target the online behavior of individuals directly.

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Creemers: 'All Internet services and companies whose services are based on user accounts and information circulation are affected'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: Why is China introducing these measures, why now?

Rogier Creemers: The gist of the new regulations on online user accounts (translated) is relatively simple. For all online account-based services, such as social media and comment functions on news web sites, users will be obliged to register with their real identity, which must be verified by the online platform.

They are still permitted to have an anonymous handle displayed in public, but this handle may not contain offensive content, nor may it suggest any affiliation with well-known persons or government bodies. In other words, it is not permitted to create a Chinese-language version of the popular spoof Twitter account @MrsStephenFry.

Furthermore, Internet users must, when opening their account, commit to respect a list of seven "baselines": laws and regulations, the Socialist system, the national interest, citizens' lawful rights and interest, the public order, social moral customs and the veracity of information.

This document is merely the latest in a long series of moves and measures, starting in 2013, to regain control over an online sphere that the leadership thought was spinning out of control. In fact, Internet authorities have been trying to institute real-name registration systems in various environments, such as Internet cafés and online gaming, for a decade.

These efforts have largely been unsuccessful. But the reshuffling of Internet responsibilities and the ascendance of the Cyberspace Administration of China, run by the prolific Lu Wei point at a greatly strengthened commitment to imposing control.

What are the authorities trying to achieve by controlling people's Internet account names?

The first challenge for any authority to successfully regulate the Internet is identifiability: the ability to find out who did what from where. The Chinese leadership has, over the past few years, consistently held that Internet users must be held to standards of responsibility and civility online, and these rules help them connect acts with actors.

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'The first challenge for any authority to successfully regulate the Internet is identifiability'Image: picture alliance/dpa

They also want to ensure that it is clear which online information comes from where, in order to control the spread of information online. Last year, for instance, it was stipulated that only registered news outlets could operate public WeChat accounts carrying current affairs-related content. Conversely, allowing spoof versions of Chinese or world leaders might, in the eyes of the leadership cause confusion.

What the authorities are trying to prevent is an uncontrollable, viral spread of information caused by individuals pretending to be affiliated with the state, as they fear it might highly disrupt political and social stability.

Moreover, although the regulations don't explicitly mention this, real-name registration certification usually takes place on the basis of identity card numbers. Last June, the State Council published plans to build a "social credit system," a system where all acts by individuals would be aggregated into a "credit score," which is not only concerned with, for example, someone's financial status, but also ones behavior online.

These new rules contribute to the credit system by ensuring that social media accounts and similar services can be coupled to broader databases on individuals' activities.

What are Chinese authorities now able to do and what Internet services and companies are affected by them?

In theory, there's nothing new here, and nothing that the Chinese authorities weren't able to do before that they are now, at least from a regulatory point of view. These new rules are not so much a legal basis for action as an indication of a strengthening intent to target individuals online directly, rather than merely outsourcing censorship and management duties to Internet companies, as had happened in the 2000s.

I would say that all Internet services and companies whose services are based on user accounts and information circulation are affected. This includes social media, audiovisual websites, commenting on news articles, etc.

What penalties could be imposed on those who do not comply?

The penalties outlined in this document are rather light: failure to register or registration with false information can, at worst, lead to the discontinuation of the Internet account. No fines or prison sentences are indicated. However, if users try to pass themselves off as celebrities or government departments, the matter must be reported to CAC, potentially opening that person up to stricter punishment.

What do the latest regulations represent for freedom of expression in the Chinese cyberspace?

Freedom of expression in Chinese cyberspace was always a factor of how much the leadership was able and wiling to tolerate, and this particular generation of leaders does not intend to condone much. In 2013, the Xi administration started with a crackdown on online opinion leaders, continued in 2014 by targeting WeChat public accounts and online video, and has started 2015 with these new rules, as well as a crackdown on the academy. Ideology and discipline are back, in other words.

There are many who argue that Internet censorship has been tightened under President Xi Jinping. Have there been any indications to draw this conclusion?

I'd certainly agree with the notion that Internet discipline has tightened, and in a manner that goes far beyond the traditional means of censorship: deleting and blocking content.

Over the past two years, the authorities have sought to reshape the Internet in a manner that realigns channels of communications between Party, state and society, prevents the emergence of organized opposition, and creates a platform for mass surveillance and big data analysis.

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'Freedom of expression in Chinese cyberspace was always a factor of how much the leadership was able and wiling to tolerate'Image: Reuters

But it has also been important within the Party: one of the major reasons Weibo and other social media caught the public eye was because they enabled the disclosure of local corruption and abuse.

This is a potentially very useful source of information for senior officials, but should preferably be channeled along controlled pathways.

And this is what seems to have happened: Weibo is a mere shadow of what it once was, but the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, the anti-corruption watchdog, has launched its own proprietary app to report corrupt officials.

Rogier Creemers is Research Officer at the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford.