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New law prohibiting fake usernames could be hard to enforce, experts say.
For better or worse, it’s easy for most Internet users to stay anonymous online. The Chinese government wants to change that.
Starting next month, China’s Cyberspace Administration will require all users of social media, websites, online forums, and other Web entities that require login to register with their real name using government-verified ID.
This bold move by the Chinese government represents an expansion of existing Internet restrictions placed on citizens. China is notorious for online censorship with its Great Firewall and has already required ID verification for some social networks. This new measure, according to an official government statement, is designed to limit supposedly “harmful” rumors spread by pseudonymous accounts.
According the Cyberspace Administration’s statement, anonymous Internet handles have been used to “spread rumors, disturb public order and disrupt social stability,” and therefore must be banned by websites and Internet providers starting on March 1. The head of the Cyberspace Administrations mobile Internet division, Xu Feng, justified the new policy at a news conference saying it “does not restrict Internet users, instead, it protects their legitimate rights.”
This is just the latest in a list of government clampdowns enacted by President Xi Jinping since taking office in 2013. Last month, the state redoubled efforts to limit access to VPNs, which Chinese citizens use to access social networks like Facebook and Twitter which are banned by the government. And in December, Chinese officials completely blocked access to Gmail.
This isn’t even the first time the Chinese government has tried to prohibit anonymous accounts. Since 2012, Weibo, the Chinese alternative to Twitter, has required ID verification.
“Real name registration is not a new phenomenon by any means,” said Madeline Earp, an analyst with the Internet watchdog group Freedom House, speaking to VICE News. “It’s been a goal of the leadership in China for several years. What’s been difficult has been defining and implementing it.”
Earp says it’s unclear what the real impact of this new policy will be given the difficulty in enforcing online identity verification. Enforcement usually requires dedicated staff and resources that most Internet companies are not willing to spare, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“In practice, people find ways around it,” Earp said.
According to a government report issued this week, there are now 557 million Internet users in China. If accurate, this means nearly half the country is now online, raising the stakes for a government that is famously restrictive of online activities.
Tim Sampson is a reporter who focused on the technology, business, and politics beats. He's also an established comedy writer, with work on Comedy Central and in The Onion and ClickHole.