Chinese Plans To Deanonymize The Internet

Despite the press attention being thrown at the China/Google relationship, there has been another issue in China brewing a little more subtly in the background that may cause further open access issues in a nation already struggling with Internet freedom.

News stories have been circulating since May of this year about the Chinese government’s possible plan to deanonymize substantial pieces of the Internet in China. It now seems from recent reports that this prospect is indeed on the restrictive government’s agenda.

In a speech given by Wang Chen (Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department in the Communist Party of China), he briefly outlined a new drive to register cellphone users with identifiable information, and force commentators on message boards to use real names; a deep and measurable attack on anonymity. The press has dwelled on the privacy side of this new issue, but they have thus failed to show how a policy like this can damage free-speech in a way that ultimately attacks open Internet practices as well.

In the news focused on Internet censorship and filtration around the globe, most of the discussion centers on active censorship methods like IP address blocking. What gets less press though, and arguably has more impact on Internet freedoms and speech, are social conditions that lead to self-censorship. In China’s case, the notorious pattern of prosecution and imprisonment of those who speak out against the communist regime has forced many to remain silent on issues they care about. The fear for personal well-being and the well-being of those close to them has forced many to simply not use the Internet to communicate in some ways that they’d like to. This becomes de facto Internet censorship.

An outlet that helps enable some people to become “less censored” is the ability to communicate anonymously through a variety of digital channels. While anonymous speech sits in a space of much controversy, where it’s ability to be used for purposes of good are often opposed by people abusing the privilege (or should it be “right”?) of some anonymity, it has been shown historically to play a pivotal role in helping people gain new freedoms and rights.

It may be this history that China doesn’t want to repeat.

As an interesting aside, there were two releases of the transcript of Mr. Chen’s speech, with the latter being a revision in which substantial pieces of the statements have been removed. The section regarding this new policy was one of those that was removed. It is unclear what that means at this point, but it surely does not ease anybody’s concerns.

By stripping away anonymous content from key Chinese commercial and news sites, China would be effectively adding another brick to its “Great Firewall” to further discourage any opposition to government policy. If this is continued to only be address through the language of privacy though, rather than through Internet censorship as well, specifically self censorship, then this issue may pass under the radar for much of world as they focus their attentions to other bricks in this ever-growing wall.