(Washington, DC) January 4, 2013 –
The Chinese government’s further tightening of internet
controls and mandating real name registration threaten security and privacy
of internet users.
On December 28, 2012, the Standing Committee
of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body,
passed the “Decision to Strengthen the Protection of Online
The Decision contains troubling provisions that require
internet access and telecommunications providers to collect personal
information about users when they sign up for internet access, landline, or
mobile phone service.
Paragraph 6 of the Decision also applies to service
providers that allow users to publish online, who must be able to connect
pseudonyms to real identities when citizens post information.
In the days
following the decision, several well-known online activists found that
their weibo micro-blogging accounts had been shut down.
“These new mandates send a chilling message to China’s
said Cynthia Wong, senior researcher on the internet and
human rights at Human Rights Watch.
“The government’s decision
is an effort to silence critics and curb anonymity online by further
conscripting internet companies to monitor and censor users.”
“Real name registration” requirements allow authorities
to more easily identify online commentators or tie mobile use to specific
individuals, limiting anonymous expression, “whistleblowers”
who spotlight official corruption, and the right to privacy.
energetic enforcement, the law will suppress critical speech as users may
fear that anything they post critical of the government could lead to
Although the right to freedom of expression is
guaranteed in article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic
of China, the Chinese government continues to regularly impose sharp curbs,
including through broad internet censorship, surveillance practices, and
prosecution of citizens and journalists for their online activity.
example, in February 2012, writer Zhu Yufu was sentenced to seven years in
prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he
posted a poem online calling for political reform in the wake of the Arab
Real Name Registration Background
This is not the
government’s first attempt to impose real name registration.
the government promulgated registration requirements for weibo, a
Twitter-like service, and previously tried to impose similar rules for
blogging services in 2007.
In 2010, two US companies stopped registering
internet domain names in China because of expanded registration rules that
the companies deemed too intrusive of their customers’ privacy.
date, the Chinese government has not consistently implemented or enforced
these directives, though real name registration was a key part of the
internet strategy released in 2010.
However, the new action by
the Standing Committee may signal renewed commitment to the real name
approach and increased enforcement of existing controls.
follows a series of high-profile corruption exposés that were widely
discussed online, despite government efforts to control media coverage, as
well as increased use of social media to mobilize citizen action.
example, weibo users and bloggers became important watchdogs in revealing
corruption and governmental cover-up attempts in the wake of the July 2011
Wenzhou high-speed train crash.
Public outcry forced officials to respond:
railway workers unearthed the first train car for analysis after initially
burying it, and local officials rescinded an order they had given to
lawyers to refuse cases from the families of crash victims.
Similarly, Shaanxi safety official Yang Dacai was removed from office
after a photo of him smiling at the site of a deadly bus crash and wearing
a luxury watch went viral online in August 2012.
Outraged netizens quickly
posted photos of Yang wearing other expensive watches and discovered that
Yang owned property worth millions of dollars, at odds with his public
Given the otherwise tightly controlled media in China, the
internet remains one of the few sources for independent information and an
increasingly powerful tool for citizens to call for government
The Decision also follows a series of
commentaries published by state-run news outlets in December 2012
describing the internet as a haven for bullies, rumor-mongers, and cyber
The Standing Committee cited the need to safeguard privacy and
information security as justification for the Decision.
However, the real
name requirement may exacerbate security and privacy risks instead.
example, South Korea, in response to concern about online bullying, passed
a law in 2007 requiring all websites to collect identity information of
users who wished to post content on social media services.
was forced to abandon the law after hackers breached databases used to
comply with the real name system, compromising the privacy of about 35
million social media users.
The South Korean Supreme Court eventually ruled
the law an unconstitutional restraint on expression, finding it ineffective
at addressing online bullying.
In China’s case, the Standing
Committee has not offered a persuasive case that there are sufficiently
serious threats that justify such draconian restrictions on privacy and
expression online, especially restrictions that could also harm
Both the right to privacy and the right
to free expression entail a corollary right to communicate anonymously.
While this right is not absolute, the importance of allowing individuals to
speak anonymously has been recognized as worthy of protection to encourage
speech that might invite reprisals.
In his 2011 report to the Human Rights
Council, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the
right to freedom of opinion and expression explicitly called upon states to
“ensure that individuals can express themselves anonymously online
and to refrain from adopting real-name registration systems.”
Rights Watch believes that users should have the ability to comment
anonymously online, particularly in countries such as China where the
government persecutes critics.
Service Providers Conscripted for
The Standing Committee’s decision also directs
network service providers to “strengthen management of
information” published by users, a phrase used to signify privatized
censorship by internet and telecommunications companies.
providers in China are already responsible for restricting access to a wide
range of “illegal content,” defined broadly and implemented in
a way to prohibit speech that reflects a line different from the official
government position, or contains information that the government deems too
A directive to strengthen such efforts may indicate
increased pressure on private companies to further limit use of social
media, search engines, and other key online tools.
companies that provide virtual private networks (VPNs) that circumvent
China’s “Great Firewall” have also reported expanded
interference with the use of their services.
VPNs can allow users to secure
their communications over an internet connection.
and ordinary users rely on VPNs to encrypt internet traffic and evade
China’s filtering system.
“Social media has become
an incredible tool for public accountability in China, but these new
controls certainly undermine that potential,”
the government is serious about fighting rampant corruption, it
shouldn’t silence whistleblowers and ordinary citizens, or enlist
companies to do it on their behalf. Instead, it should allow people to
speak out and to protect their identities online.”
Rights Watch Press release