China Requires Real Names, Identification Numbers To Post Comments Online

December 8, 2009

China's State Council Information Office reportedly issued a secret directive in July 2009 ordering Chinese news Web sites, many of which now allow users to post comments on news items, to require new users to provide identifying information before posting comments. Although government officials denied a report about the directive, news portals appear to be complying with the new policy. The Chinese government has punished citizens who have used the Internet to, among other things, peacefully criticize the Communist Party and the Chinese government. By making it easier for officials to identify the source of such comments, the new policy may lead to self censorship. Internet companies operating in China and Chinese Internet users have expressed opposition to similar policies in the past.

 The State Council Information Office (SCIO) reportedly issued a secret directive in late July 2009 ordering news Web sites in China to require new users wishing to post a comment to provide their real name and identity card number, according to a September 5 New York Times (NYT) report. The Commission could not locate the government directive on the Internet, but found that several news portals, including Sohu, Netease, and MSN, appeared to be complying with the directive. The NYT report said that major news portals such as "Sina, Netease, Sohu and scores of other sites" began implementing the requirement in early August, citing "top editors" at two of the news portals and a staff member at Sina. The requirement did not apply to "blog hosts, forums or government news sites like People's Daily or Xinhua" and did not appear to affect users already registered with the sites, according to NYT. The report did not specify why the requirement did not apply to certain sites or why current users were not affected. The NYT report said that in the past users had been able to post comments more anonymously on many of the affected sites and often did not need to register. According to NYT, Chinese officials can already trace comments to an Internet protocol address. Internet companies are also required by Chinese regulations to maintain records of the online activity of a user.

Newspapers reportedly pulled coverage of the directive or said they were warned not to cover it, according to the NYT report. The Hong Kong-based newspaper Ta Kung Pao first reported on the directive in early August but removed the story from its Web site days later. (Duo Wei News Net reprinted the story; China Digital Times translated it into English.) The NYT article said a Chinese newspaper tried to follow up on the Ta Kung Pao story, but was "forced to abort their article because they were warned that the order was a state secret," according to editors at the paper. In a September 11 Beijing International Herald Leader article (via the government Web site of Huilai county, Guangdong province), SCIO reportedly refuted the NYT article and the existence of a "real name system," but acknowledged that users must register to post comments.

Internet users in China say real name requirements raise free speech and privacy concerns and discourage citizens from exposing official corruption. After officials in Hangzhou city, Zhejiang province, attempted to impose a real name requirement that would have taken effect in May 2009, a large online survey by QQ found that 78 percent of people polled did not support the regulation, according to a May 26 China Daily article. The Hangzhou regulation, which was issued in April 2009, was reportedly "shelved," according to a May 19 Xinhua report. One Internet user cited in the China Daily article said the regulation could "violate our privacy and freedom of speech, as well as discourage online supervision over political corruption." Chinese officials have in recent years violated the right to freedom of expression of citizens such as Yang Chunlin, Hu Jia, Lu Gengsong, Zhang Qi, Chen Daojun, Wang Rongqing, and Yuan Xianchen, by detaining or sentencing them for using the Internet to peacefully express their views, including criticizing the Communist Party or Chinese government, calling for political reforms or democracy, or spotlighting issues considered sensitive by the Party or government. (For more information on these cases see the CECC's Political Prisoner Database.) Another Internet user mentioned in the China Daily article criticized the Hangzhou regulation's vagueness, saying "It prohibits spreading rumors online, but the question is how to define rumor. Faced with dangerous situations, people will naturally take precautions and send warnings to their friends. Can information spread that way really be called rumor?" In October 2009, 15 Chinese intellectuals issued the Internet Human Rights Declaration, in which they stated that "Netizens' [Internet users'] freedom of speech encompasses a right to express themselves anonymously. Anonymity enables some authors to express their opinions in ways that best suit their needs." (For information on Internet whistleblowers and the government's application of the "spreading rumors" provision in Article 25 of the Public Security Administration Punishment Law, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the Commission's 2009 and 2007 Annual Reports.)

The NYT article noted that the idea for a real name registration system dates back to 2003, when the government ordered Internet cafes to require that customers show identification. Other examples of attempts to introduce real name requirements in recent years include:

  • In 2005, authorities in Shenzhen municipality, Guangdong province, began requiring Internet chatrooms, bulletin boards, news groups, and instant messaging systems to implement a real name system as part of an Internet "purification and rectification" initiative.
  • As noted in the Commission's 2007 Annual Report, the Internet Society of China, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, attempted to implement a policy that would have required all bloggers to register with their real names. The government backed away from the plan after Internet companies resisted the plan, arguing that the system would be impossible to implement. According to a May 22, 2007, Xinhua article, a Chinese blogger said that the risk of being identified would discourage bloggers from reporting the truth.

The most recent real name directive was introduced during a period of increased attempts to censor the Internet, as Chinese officials were preparing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 2009. Before October 1, officials reportedly stepped up efforts to block Web sites and online tools that allow Chinese citizens to circumvent China's Internet restrictions, according to a September 25 PCWorld article. The Chinese government also attempted to require all computers sold in China after July 1 to be packaged with government-approved "Green Dam" censorship software. According to an August 13 Xinhua article, an official later announced that the requirement would not be imposed on all computers. Officials also reportedly issued an order that Internet service providers install "Blue Shield" censorship software on their servers by a September deadline, according to a September 13 Apple Daily article (in Chinese).

For more information about Internet censorship in China and how officials punish citizens for using the Internet to peacefully express their views, including criticizing the Communist Party or Chinese government, calling for political reforms or democracy, or spotlighting issues considered sensitive by the Party or government, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the Commission's 2009 Annual Report.