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China passes new law requiring real names for Internet services

The use of pseudonyms and alternate identities online has long been a topic for discussion and intellectual debate, with the value of freedom of expression without fear of reprisal being weighed against the abdication of personal responsibility offered by anonymity. In China however, the authorities have stepped in to offer an end to the debate by approving legislation that will require the use of real names in order to use the Internet.

The law, which stipulates that people clearly identify themselves when signing up for Internet and phone services, was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Friday. According to the legislation, “network service providers will ask users to provide genuine identification information when signing agreements to grant them access to the Internet, fixed-line telephone or mobile telecommunication services or to allow users to post information publicly.” The move will apparently “ensure Internet information security, safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal entities or other organizations, and safeguard national security and public interests.”

The new law is a further step in pushing for the identification of those posting messages online. Beijing’s local government demanded that users of the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service use their real names by mid-March, in order to prevent “the spread of harmful false rumors,” although the service has so far refused to punish users who fail to comply with the demand. Even ahead of this legislation passing, many ISPs and telecom operators have similar identity management requirements in place for potential customers. The new legislation is an attempt to make such requirements a legal necessity and create national guidelines for what should be addressed and collected.

Many fear that the removal of the right to anonymous protest is another way of censoring free speech in the country, although that’s an argument rejected by those who support the decision.

“Some people are worried that the law would affect people making criticism and suggestions or uncovering corrupt behavior through the Web,” said Li Fei, deputy director of the Commission for Legislative Affairs of the NPC Standing Committee. “I think [such concern] is not necessary. Citizens have the right to criticize, suggest and appeal to relevant department according to the law.”

A report from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, portrays the legislation as a good thing for Internet privacy. According to the report, the new law “bans all organizations and individuals from obtaining people’s personal digital information via theft or other illegal means, and prohibits them from selling or illegally providing the information to others.” The report also said the law “bans service providers, as well as government agencies and their personnel, from leaking or damaging users’ digital information. It also bans them from selling or illegally providing this information to others.”

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