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Renewed restrictions send online chill in China

(HRW/IFEX) - January 4, 2013 - The Chinese government's further tightening of internet controls and mandating real name registration threaten security and privacy of internet users.

On December 28, 2012, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's legislative body, passed the "Decision to Strengthen the Protection of Online Information." The Decision contains troubling provisions that require internet access and telecommunications providers to collect personal information about users when they sign up for internet access, landline, or mobile phone service. Paragraph 6 of the Decision also applies to service providers that allow users to publish online, who must be able to connect pseudonyms to real identities when citizens post information. In the days following the decision, several well-known online activists found that their weibo micro-blogging accounts had been shut down.

"These new mandates send a chilling message to China's netizens," said Cynthia Wong, senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch. "The government's decision is an effort to silence critics and curb anonymity online by further conscripting internet companies to monitor and censor users."

"Real name registration" requirements allow authorities to more easily identify online commentators or tie mobile use to specific individuals, limiting anonymous expression, "whistleblowers" who spotlight official corruption, and the right to privacy. Even without energetic enforcement, the law will suppress critical speech as users may fear that anything they post critical of the government could lead to reprisals.

Although the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese government continues to regularly impose sharp curbs, including through broad internet censorship, surveillance practices, and prosecution of citizens and journalists for their online activity. For example, in February 2012, writer Zhu Yufu was sentenced to seven years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" because he posted a poem online calling for political reform in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Real Name Registration Background

This is not the government's first attempt to impose real name registration. In 2011, the government promulgated registration requirements for weibo, a Twitter-like service, and previously tried to impose similar rules for blogging services in 2007. In 2010, two US companies stopped registering internet domain names in China because of expanded registration rules that the companies deemed too intrusive of their customers' privacy. To date, the Chinese government has not consistently implemented or enforced these directives, though real name registration was a key part of the internet strategy released in 2010.

However, the new action by the Standing Committee may signal renewed commitment to the real name approach and increased enforcement of existing controls. This decision follows a series of high-profile corruption exposés that were widely discussed online, despite government efforts to control media coverage, as well as increased use of social media to mobilize citizen action. For example, weibo users and bloggers became important watchdogs in revealing corruption and governmental cover-up attempts in the wake of the July 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train crash. Public outcry forced officials to respond: railway workers unearthed the first train car for analysis after initially burying it, and local officials rescinded an order they had given to lawyers to refuse cases from the families of crash victims.

Similarly, Shaanxi safety official Yang Dacai was removed from office after a photo of him smiling at the site of a deadly bus crash and wearing a luxury watch went viral online in August 2012. Outraged netizens quickly posted photos of Yang wearing other expensive watches and discovered that Yang owned property worth millions of dollars, at odds with his public servant salary. Given the otherwise tightly controlled media in China, the internet remains one of the few sources for independent information and an increasingly powerful tool for citizens to call for government accountability.

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