Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Real-Name Registration Rules and the Fading Digital Anonymity in China

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Real-Name Registration Rules and the Fading Digital Anonymity in China

Article excerpt

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Online real-name registration policies require the disclosure of the speaker's identity with the aid of various methods, ranging from government regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs) to technologies embedded in communication infrastructure. Promulgated under the Chinese government's philosophy of fostering a "responsible" Internet, the real-name registration rules have become one of the regulatory risks of doing business in China. For example, in its annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Sina, a NASDAQ-listed company and one of China's largest Internet companies, warned its investors that Chinese authorities might shut it down because its Twitter-like microblogging sites were in noncompliance with the Chinese government's real-name registration rules.1 In order to maintain public order, China has enacted local and national laws requiring Internet users, especially bloggers and microbloggers,2 to register their real name and personal information with various ISPs that directly provide users with Internet access or services.3 These regulations reflect the Chinese government's position that individuals should be responsible for their online communications. Nonetheless, this regulation has simultaneously led to fierce controversy and policy debate.4

As the Internet facilitates economic development, Chinese policy makers aim to channel its energy and creativity in ways that fit the Chinese governance model. But what the Chinese party-state government is concerned about is the free flow of information which, enabled by digital technologies, may upset social stability. Therefore, the government has carved out a unique approach to coping with this instance of the "dictator's dilemma."5 In order to control online information, the government has imposed strict duties on Internet companies or ISPs under the twin principles of "harmonious society" and "social responsibility."6 Most Internet companies have tamely abided by the government's mandates and have cooperated with the government in enforcing Internet regulations. In this way, the companies hope to continue extracting profit from the largest digital economy in the world. Put differently, by taking advantage of the business sector's profit-driven motives, the authoritarian government can easily leverage commercial power and corporate resources for online political censorship and surveillance. This so-called "Network Authoritarian Model" (NAM) has strong Chinese characteristics.7 In the past decade, the Chinese government has successfully implemented the NAM via various measures, such as Internet filtering and strict Internet regulations.8 China's implementation of the real-name registration rules can also be understood as an example of the network-authoritarian regulatory model.

However, China's implementation of the NAM is not without its challenges. Because the strategy relies on compliance by private ISPs, it may be vulnerable when those private ISPs lack incentive or the ability to cooperate. As China's real-name registration rules have created insurmountable compliance costs, most Internet companies have hesitated to fully implement the real-name registration rules and the accompanying verification system.9 Such noncompliance has led to more uncertainties associated with the effective enforcement of the real-name registration policy. Despite the success of the network authoritarian approach in controlling the flow of online information in the last decade, the uncertainties have created challenges for the continuance of this approach.10

The implementation of the Chinese real-name registration policy presents an ideal opportunity to analyze the interaction between the various-sometimes competing-agendas associated with privacy, online free speech, and government control of the Internet.11 China is definitely not alone in opposing blanket digital anonymity. …

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