The Chinese government on Friday approved regulations that will require all of the country's Internet users to register their names, but it remains unclear when and how the ominous "real name" policy will go into effect — and what, exactly, will happen once it does. So far, the legislature has responded to a recent ramping-up in censorship with what critics call more censorship — "their intention is ... to take back that bit of space for public opinion," one told the Associated Press — and authorities maintain are policies that will "enhance protection of personal info online and safeguard public interests," according to the official state news agency. But beyond acknowledging that users will have to reveal themselves to Internet service providers, the Chinese government hasn't figured out the rest — legislation remains subject to "further deliberation and revisions." With all that uncertainty, here's what the near future of Chinese Internet freedom might look like.
Government ID for Internet Installation
How It Might Work: When the Time Warner of China comes to connect the cables, people will have to provide a government issued ID, suspects The Next Web's Josh Ong.
Censorship Factor: Medium. That scenario wouldn't have much of an effect on the average Internet user, who might have already had to do that, as China requires. The new law, however, will impact cellphone users. About 70 percent of mobile Internet users have registered with real names, according to The New York Times's Keith Bradsher. The remaining 30 percent might not like that so much.
Real Name Registration for All Sites
How It Might Work: When signing up with a website for the first time, users have to provide some sort of proof of personhood, which is what Bill Bishop, who writes the Sinocism China Newsletter, thinks might happen.
Includes not just ISP real name registration but also real name for all Internet services, incl weibo...stand corrected, that is big change— Bill Bishop (@niubi) December 28, 2012
Censorship Factor: Huge, in theory. This is something the Chinese government has already tried to enforce on bloggers, asking platforms like Weibo to use same-name registrations. In practice, these platforms have dodged the requirements. And bloggers have managed to find ways around it. In previous situations like this, the government has used its power only when it needed to. "One of the lessons we've learned in recent years with the censorship strategy used by the Chinese authorities is that they don’t seek to block everything," Christopher Walker, who works at Freedom House, told Voice of America. "They seek to manage and interfere with, and where necessary block, what they deem to be meaningful." That, of course, means the people who need anonymity most will have their writing subject to the most scrutiny.
Internet Café Tracking
How It Might Work: If only people who sign up with the ISP have to provide identification, places that provide Internet access will have to do some of the policing themselves. Internet cafés are already highly regulated by the government.
Censorship Factor: Depends. If these Internet cafés do what the government says, it would prove very difficult for users trying to skirt the regulations. But authorities have shut down Chinese cafés in the past, so owners have some motivation to follow the new rules.
The Ongoing VPN Crackdown
How It Might Work: The new regulations change nothing about virtual private networks that Chinese users often lin up with in order to get around the "Great Firewall." The government already requires strict VPN registration.
Censorship Factor: Inevitable. Of late the government has started cracking down on VPNs even more. It could use the new law as an excuse for further enforcement of that law, as it has done in the past, according to Duncan Clark, a Beijing-based consultant.