China Tightens Its Grip on Internet Users
China is clamping down further on Internet users. Service providers now must play a greater role in policing online behavior -- verifying identities, deleting offending posts, and reporting violators to the government. The rules will undoubtedly pose challenges for companies wanting to do business in the country as well as for individuals wanting to engage in free and open discourse.
12/28/12 2:45 PM PT
The Chinese government issued a set of new Internet rules on Friday. Internet users must now provide their real names to service providers, and ISPs are required to delete forbidden posts and report such activities to authorities. In other words, the so-called "Great Firewall of China" has been further fortified.
"This is just another indication that they really want to control what information gets to their citizens," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "From the standpoint of overall impact, it means that all communication going in and out of China are going to be more closely monitored."
The new regulations were issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. While users may still adopt pseudonyms for online postings, they will have to provide a real name to service providers first.
Firewall of China
The new regulations also will require Internet service providers, including those providing access for both fixed-line and mobile phones, to confirm their identities. However, just as the invaders of medieval China found ways through or around China's Great Wall, it is likely that Internet users will be able to exploit weaknesses in China's Great Firewall to thwart the stricter new security measures.
"There are some ways they could break through -- VPN and encryption could get through," Enderle told TechNewsWorld. "A VPN tunnel might be hard to monitor, but China might look to block those as well."
While it is likely that hackers could piggyback on communications and use high-level encryption, the truth is that for most users the so-called spy-level "black bag stuff" simply isn't going to be practical.
"It might be possible to get a satellite uplink to work," Enderle added, "at least until there is a way to jam the signal. But it is pretty easy to break into the government's methods of monitoring. As we saw in Eastern Europe, it just means that companies will have to be more careful about what information goes through, as it will be easy to know what is being monitored."
Great Leap Backward?
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which resulted in the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government has on occasion moved toward providing more individual freedom, but those in power have inevitably pulled back. This latest move is a far cry from the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but ironically neither movement is even allowed to be widely discussed in China.
This latest move shows that China's government will likely continue to crack down on the free flow of communication to avoid a turn away from party control.
This attitude isn't limited to China, though.
"We all know about the Arab spring and how Iran has tried to crack down on the Internet. Motivation and technology being what they are, word will get out," Claudia Rast, a business and technology attorney with Butzel Long, told TechNewsWorld.
"How do you keep 535 million people from accessing information they want or posting information they want?" she mused.
Business Not as Usual
The changes in the Internet rules in China essentially encompass three main points: allowing users to adopt pseudonyms only after providing real names; requiring providers to confirm the information provided is accurate; and requiring businesses to exercise greater caution in gathering and protecting data.
"Broadly speaking, China's government is attempting to eliminate Internet anonymity," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "While the concept is largely ignored globally, it occasionally arises in discussions of how to better control abusive online behaviors including stalking, harassment, bullying, etc. On the surface, China's move is likely to be interpreted as a simplistic response to a number of recent cases where corrupt government officials were publicly exposed and embarrassed on social networking and microblogging sites."
Both the broadness of the changes and their potential consequences for both users and service providers suggest that the problem -- and its resolution -- could be far more complex.
"According to a number of reports, while official Internet policies in China are highly restrictive, the government has mostly left enforcement up to the country's large and diverse community of service providers. In turn, many service providers have dragged their feet in order to avoid angering customers who can easily switch to other service providers," King told TechNewsWorld.
"With that in mind, it's possible to consider these new rules an obvious attempt by the central government to bring order to an increasingly freewheeling online environment," he added. "But cautiously spreading the pain between both users and SPs, and [sweetening] those bitter pills with data privacy sops, suggests China's new rulers may also be trying to avoid draconian measures that would be ignored or rejected."
In wartime, it was common to see posters that suggest "loose lips sink ships." This could be a new Cold War of over the spread of information, and users may not worry so much about ships as their own freedoms.
"The result is that individuals as well as businesses that look to do business in China will have to be much more careful about what goes in and out of the country," said Enderle. "Just watch what you say."