While online real-name policies have gained traction in the U.S. due to the policies of Facebook and Google+, they are increasingly linked with censorship in Asia, where governments mandate their use with the stated goal of squelching rumors and libel online.
On Thursday, a South Korean court struck down a controversial 2007 law requiring contributors to online forums to use their real names when leaving comments. Although meant to stop abusive postings from anonymous users, the law was found to be undermining freedom of speech.
Following the ruling, Internet users in neighboring China posted comments wondering if their own nation would end real-name policies being introduced on Twitter-like microblogging sites on the country. Like South Korea's law, the policies are meant to crack down on the spread of rumors. But many observers equate it to a form of censorship meant to scare users from posting comments critical of the government.
In the U.S., meanwhile, real-name policies have become important tools used by both Facebook and Google+ to create a "real world" environment, with the aim of making it easier for users to find and connect with each other.
The companies' policies haven't come without controversy. Facebook and Google+ will delete user accounts found using fake names. This caused Google+ users to complain in July of last year, with some stating their accounts had been wrongfully deleted, while others said they wished to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.
But while both Facebook and Google+ use the policies to further their business interests, real-name regulations in China and South Korea have threatened to create burdens for Internet firms.
Due to South Korea's real name policy on Internet forum posting, sites with enough user traffic were required to implement verification systems for user comment pages, said Brendon Carr, a foreign legal consultant at Yulchon LLC, Attorneys at Law. This meant even user reviews for e-commerce businesses were forced to abide, he said.
"It's certainly a barrier for foreign investors," Carr said, noting that the law effectively prevented small businesses from using the Internet to engage with customers through forums, due to the cost of the verification systems.
But besides imposing costs on businesses, the law also affected free speech. Without anonymity, users and their comments could be identified for defamation, Carr said. Those wanting to express controversial opinions anonymously were instead forced to use sites based overseas.
"Koreans like defamation complaints," he said. "When somebody says something bad about you, that's a pretty popular remedy."
In China real-name policies have also created worries, both in the industry and among users. The nation's government, which is known for its strict censorship of the Internet, is gradually forcing the country's microblogs to require users to register their accounts with their real identities. Users who do not comply will no longer be able to publish posts.
Despite the push from the government, the operator of Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like site in the country, noted its concerns about the real-name policy in a February earnings call. Such a policy, if enacted immediately, would prevent many of the site's users from posting, the company's CEO warned. "In a very dramatic scenario, (users) may not be able to speak, or to post messages, but hopefully that's not going to happen," he said.
So far, the Chinese government has yet to force Sina Weibo to fully comply with the policy. And some users have complained, calling it another way to restrict their freedom of speech.
But in a nation with already strict censorship laws, the real-name policy is just one method among many the government uses to control content on Internet sites. Previously, authorities have gone so far as to detain users for spreading alleged online rumors. Sites like Sina Weibo will also routinely delete postings or shut down accounts for spreading sensitive or anti-government content.
Despite the real-name policy, Chinese users will continue to frequent Sina Weibo and other Twitter-like sites in the country, said Ben Cavendar, an analyst with China Market Research Group. "I think (Chinese users) have really integrated themselves with social networking sites," he said. "They are not going to stop using them. It's a transition for people, but they are going to use it."