By Nate Anderson | Published: October 23, 2006 – 10:46AM CT
China is mulling a rule change that would require all bloggers to register with the government under their own names, though they would be permitted to keep using an online pseudonym. The move is part of a crackdown against what official news agency Xinhua terms "irresponsible and untrue information," which is a "bad influence" on society.
Rumors that such a plan was in the works have sparked controversy in China, but the Internet Society of China (tasked with developing the real names system) has announced that nothing is official and no proposals have yet been finalized. The group is developing ideas, but has expressed interest in making the debate an open one, encouraging bloggers to air their views on the issue.
The ISC is also concerned with the possible privacy problems such a scheme could create, and plan to address those in proposal they put forward. Huang Chengqing, the ISC's secretary general, told Xinhua that "a complete personal data protection system should be established in advance." This is a good idea if the worries center on identity thieves and public disclosure of a blogger's identity. But if bloggers worry that the government will know exactly who you are and what you're saying, then a data protection system will provide little comfort; it's the online equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse.
China has a history of cracking down on Internet communications, of course, and not just with its Great Firewall. Last week, we reported on one municipality's plan to ban Internet-spread rumors, and China implemented a similar "real names" directive on mobile phones earlier this month, which are sometimes used by criminals, but are also used to spread rumors and information.
The government also keeps a close eye on what those inside the country are writing, and shuts down some objectionable material, as it did a few weeks ago when it closed blogs run by a Tibetan intellectual. According to Human Rights Watch, "the Chinese government and Communist party officials have moved aggressively to shut down websites, blogs, and other electronic forums that discuss what the government considers sensitive topics, using a sophisticated network of human and technological controls. Journalists, bloggers, webmasters, writers, and editors who sent news out of China or who even debated among themselves about Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, among other subjects, have faced punishments ranging from sudden unemployment to long prison terms."
Should bloggers worry? Even the rumor of the "real names" measure has aroused considerable opposition, so it's not clear that it will come to pass. Blogging is also difficult to control, since it's so easy to do. There are hundreds of blog hosts within China, and many more without, and it's easy enough to open your own website and start publishing. Policing the Internet for bloggers who have not registered with the government is unlikely to happen in practice, though a law's unworkability is no guarantee that it won't be passed – and that's true anywhere in the world.
But plenty of people welcome the new plan. Anonymous online criticism and rumormongering have aroused their own debate in China over responsibility and free speech. Xinhua cites a Net user named "Tinghai," who believes "that the tricks, porns and rights infringement in China's blogs will never be curbed or reduced unless a real name system is shaped and starts running."