China Toughens Its Restrictions on Use of the Internet

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HONG KONG -- The Chinese government issued new rules on Friday requiring Internet users to provide their real names to service providers, while assigning Internet companies greater responsibility for deleting forbidden postings and reporting them to the authorities.

The decision came as government censors have sharply stepped up restrictions on China's international Internet traffic in recent weeks. The restrictions are making it harder for businesses to protect commercial secrets and for individuals to view overseas Web sites that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive.

The new regulations, issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, allow Internet users to continue to adopt pseudonyms for their online postings, but only if they first provide their real names to service providers, a measure that could chill some of the vibrant discourse on the country's Twitter-like microblogs. The authorities periodically detain and even jail Internet users for politically sensitive comments, such as calls for a multiparty democracy or accusations of impropriety by local officials.

Any entity providing Internet access, including over fixed-line or mobile phones, "should when signing agreements with users or confirming provision of services, demand that users provide true information about their identities," the committee ordered.

In recent weeks, Internet users in China have exposed a series of sexual and financial scandals that have led to the resignations or dismissals of at least 10 local officials. International news media have also published a series of reports in recent months on the accumulation of wealth by the family members of China's leaders, and some Web sites carrying such reports, including Bloomberg's and the English- and Chinese-language sites of The New York Times, have been assiduously blocked, while Internet comments about them have been swiftly deleted.

The regulations issued Friday build on a series of similar administrative guidelines and municipal rules issued over the past year. China's mostly private Internet service providers have been slow to comply with them, fearing the reactions of their customers. The committee's decision has much greater legal force, and puts far more pressure on Chinese Internet providers to comply more quickly and more comprehensively, Internet specialists said.

In what appeared to be an effort to make the decision more palatable to the Chinese public, the committee also included a mandate for businesses in China to be more cautious in gathering and protecting electronic data.

"Nowadays on the Internet there are very serious problems with citizens' personal electronic information being recklessly collected, used without approval, illegally disclosed, and even traded and sold," Li Fei, a deputy director of the committee's legislative affairs panel, said on Friday at a news conference in Beijing. "There are also a large number of cases of invasive attacks on information systems to steal personal electronic information, as well as lawbreaking on the Internet through swindles and through defaming and slandering others."

Mr. Li denied that the government was seeking to prevent the exposure of corruption.

"When citizens exercise these rights according to the law, no organization or individual can use any reason or excuse to interfere, and cannot suppress them or exact revenge," he said. "At the same time, when citizens exercise their rights, including through use of the Internet, they should stay within the bounds of the Constitution and the laws, and must not harm the legitimate rights and interests of the state, society, the collective or of other citizens."

A spokesman for the National People's Congress said that 145 members of the committee voted in favor of the new rules, with 5 abstaining and 1 voting against them.

The requirement for real names appeared to be aimed particularly at cellphone companies and other providers of mobile Internet access. At the news conference, an official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Zhao Zhiguo, said that nearly all fixed-line services now had real-name registration, but that only about 70 percent of mobile phones were registered under real names.

The authorities have made it harder in the last several years to buy a cellphone chip with a new phone number anonymously. New buyers are required to register with their identity documents before making international calls.

"To implement the relevant requirements of this decision, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology will improve its regulatory system and draft a detailed implementation plan to fully develop authenticated identity administration for telephone users," Mr. Zhao said.

China's censors have begun blocking more foreign Web sites and, in recent weeks, have sharply stepped up the blocking of virtual private networks, or VPNs. A VPN is a tool for encrypted computer communication that is widely used by businesses and individuals in China to protect against prying by the government and state-owned enterprises, and to circumvent China's blocking of a long and lengthening list of overseas Web sites that cover subjects the government considers politically sensitive.

The Chinese government has been experimenting over the past two years with ways to identify and block VPNs, said Xiao Qiang, the leader of a team of Chinese Internet researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. But the government did not begin deploying that capability on a considerable scale until September, and it has stepped up its use of blocking since then, particularly in the weeks leading up to the Communist Party's National Congress in early November, he said.

Although many had expected the blocking of Web sites and VPNs to recede after the party congress, that has not happened. Mr. Xiao said that the Chinese blocking of VPNs was "technically savvy and politically self-destructive," in that it may allow the authorities to more effectively monitor communications and interfere with the dissemination of politically sensitive information, but at a high price in terms of antagonizing computer users across China.

Taken together, political analysts said, the various Internet moves suggest that while the new team of leaders selected at the party congress may be talking about reforms, including further opening of the economy to international competition, the new leaders remain very wary of freer political discourse, and may even pursue further restrictions.

A review of search terms on Google, one way of tracking subjects of interest in China, shows a surge in searches for the term "VPN" that began in late August, peaked in early November at the start of the party congress and has stayed high ever since.

Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader in the 1980s and 1990s, famously observed that in opening up the country's economy to the world after the Cultural Revolution, some "flies" would inevitably come in. Bill Bishop, a social media specialist based in Beijing, said that the latest policy moves suggested, "They've got some very smart computer scientists trying to figure out how to keep the digital flies away."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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