Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Tuesday, 11 May 2010 00:18 UK

China targets online commentator anonymity

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Chinese net user, AFP/Getty
Chinese web users already have to register to enter internet cafes

China is considering forcing its citizens to use their real names when they post comments on internet bulletin boards.

The suggestion came from Wang Chen, head of the government's information office, at a meeting of senior Chinese leaders.

If introduced, the measure could strengthen the government's control over what people say on the internet.

China already exerts a strong hold over how its citizens use the internet, control that it is seeking to extend.

The government has amended the state secrets law to force internet firms to help track down those suspected of criminal activity.

State secrets

Mr Wang made his comments at a meeting of the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament.

"The government will further strengthen the basic administration of the internet and actively implement a real-name system," he said.

In China... if you surrender your anonymity you put yourself in political peril
Internet commentator Kaiser Kuo

Mr Wang said government departments were looking at how new technology could be used to make this system work.

The Chinese government has long been keen to link internet comments to the people who are making them.

Some online chatrooms already require those posting comments to register with a name, although users often type in pseudonyms.

And internet cafes are required to record details from people's identity cards before they are allowed to use a computer.

Mr Wang did not give a timetable for the implementation of the real-name system, but it is clear the government is interested in tightening its hold on the flow of information on the internet.

It recently amended the Law on Guarding State Secrets so that internet operators are now obliged to pass on information to the police about possible violations of the regulation.

"Once a leak has been discovered, records should be kept and discoverers should report it to public and state security departments in charge of confidentiality," said an article on the amended law run by China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

Chinese dissident Hu Jia (file image)

China believes the amendments to the state secrets law will make the regulation more transparent, but not everyone agrees.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), said the revised law had "strengthened the powerful and all-encompassing net around information flow".

Mr Wang said the government wanted to introduce the real-name system in order to monitor the spread of "harmful information".

But many suspect that the real aim is to place further limits on how China's 400 million internet users communicate on the web.

The government already blocks its citizens from sensitive websites or certain information, and tries to manipulate online debate by employing teams of internet commentators.

Chinese blogger and journalist Michael Anti said: "This is nothing more than a political slogan from the government because it would be too expensive and complicated to introduce. The government is just trying to terrorise people."

'Political peril'

Other bloggers say using their real names will make little difference - but only because they already know they can be found and so self-censor.

Governments are born to be criticised
Blogger Cher En

"Whatever you write online, there are ways the police can track you down, even without the real-name system," said media commentator Jia Jia.

China is not the only country around the world where the anonymity on the internet has become an issue.

"There is a case to be made against it because people tend to hide behind anonymity," said internet commentator Kaiser Kuo.

But in China, where the freedom to express opinions is severely curtailed, that could cause problems.

"In China this has a different dimension because if you surrender your anonymity you put yourself in political peril," Mr Kuo added.

In the past, China has prosecuted activists for writing critical articles that appeared online.

Activist Hu Jia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison in 2008 for subversion, in part because of comments that appeared online.

Many people are already wary about expressing their own views online. Adding their real names would undoubtedly make many of them less likely to comment freely.

But not everybody said they would be cowed.

"Governments are born to be criticised," said Chen Er, who blogs under the name Doubleaf.

"Many people are afraid of causing trouble, but I'm not."

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