China demands use of real names in social media accounts

China wants to stamp out accounts that impersonate real groups and people, but the rules effectively terminate social media anonymity

To eliminate fake social media accounts that impersonate public figures, the Chinese government has issued new rules that go much further and outlaw anonymity in blogs, social networks, discussion forums and IM services.

The move, announced Wednesday, is the latest in a recent string of Chinese government actions that have increased online censorship in the country.

To justify the new rules, the government said that fake accounts have been used to impersonate real groups or well-known people to damage society. In some cases, the fake accounts have been set up to impersonate Chinese government departments and mislead the public, or to pretend to be media organizations and release fake news, according to China's top Internet regulator.

"Some have impersonated a person's identity to infringe on their rights," the regulator said in an online posting. "Some have been used to impersonate famous people, including foreign heads of state such as 'Putin', 'Obama.'"

To ban the fake accounts, China has issued new regulations that require Internet users give their real name when registering on certain sites. These include blogs, Twitter-like services known as weibo, instant messaging tools, forums, and the comment sections to Internet services. The new rules, which don't apply to email accounts, appear to be retroactive.

However, users can still pick their online screen names. But according to the new regulations, the screen names and even profile picture cannot contain any "illegal or bad information." Otherwise the account will be deleted or denied registration.

Unacceptable screen names include anything that the government considers as harmful to the nation, fans ethnic discrimination, spreads rumor or relates to violence, among others.

Although the regulations are large in scope, they aren't much of a surprise. In recent months, the government has been steadily increasing censorship in the country, with the blocking of more foreign Internet sites, and late last year, a ban on wordplay and pun use in the media.

Prior to Wednesday's regulations, China had been working to rein in controversial content on online comment sections. In previous years, it's also demanded that when users sign up for mobile phone service, or register with Twitter-like sites in the country, that they first provide real ID information.

China argues that these moves all are meant to protect users, and that they promote a safe and healthy environment. But the censors have often blocked access to websites with the potential to spread anti-government content. As a result, Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites have all been banned.

However, local Chinese websites are still able to operate freely, as long as they self-censor and take down offending content.

To comply with the new regulations, which go into effect next month, Chinese Internet sites will likely have to devote more effort to verify the identity of their account holders. It's not clear to what lengths the government expects the site operators to go in making sure their users aren't providing false or incorrect identity information.

Users found violating the new regulations will be prosecuted by the relevant department. In the past, China has gone as far to arrest Internet users for spreading online rumors or false information.

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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