China's top legislature on Friday approved rules to enhance the protection of personal information online and safeguard public interests.
The 12-article decision on strengthening online information protection, which has the same legal effect as a law, was adopted by lawmakers at the closing meeting of a five-day session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
"The decision uses the legal form to protect personal information security, set down the network identity management policy, clarify the duties of service providers and endow government watchdogs with necessary supervisory measures," top legislator Wu Bangguo said at the meeting.
The new rules will help to "promote social harmony and stability, and safeguard national security" as well as "the country's lasting political stability," he said.
Internet ID policy, worries unnecessary
The decision includes an identity management policy requiring Internet users to use their real names to identify themselves to service providers, including Internet or telecommunications operators.
"Network service providers will ask users to provide genuine identification information when signing agreements to grant them access to the Internet, fixed-line telephone or mobile telecommunications services or to allow users to post information publicly," the decision says.
At a press conference on Friday, a senior member of the top legislature allayed public concern that the new decision could hamper the exposure of corruption cases online and public criticism lodged on the Internet.
Such worries are "unnecessary," said Li Fei, deputy director of the Commission for Legislative Affairs of the NPC Standing Committee.
"Identity management work can be conducted backstage, allowing users to use different names when posting material publicly," Li said earlier this week while briefing lawmakers on the decision.
Many Internet and telecommunications operators have already put identity management into practice in China. The new decision aims to improve the policy through legislation, according to Li.
By November, almost all fixed-line phone users and 70 percent of mobile phone users have registered with their real names. Unregistered users are mainly owners of prepaid mobile phone cards, figures from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) show.
Li Yuxiao, an expert on Internet management and law studies at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, said it would be "empty talk" to discuss protection rights for individuals under the condition of complete anonymity.
The identity management policy enables people to "protect their lawful rights by providing real names while building an environment of free exchange under anonymity," Li said.
Enhanced information management
"Network service providers will strengthen management of information released by users," the decision says.
Service providers are required to "immediately stop the transmission of illegal information once it is spotted and take relevant measures, including removing the information and saving records, before reporting to supervisory authorities," the decision says.
It empowers supervising departments to take necessary measures to prevent, stop or punish those who infringe upon online privacy rights.
Citizens have the right to demand service providers to delete digital information that infringes upon their own rights, it says.
The decision says authorities will "protect digital information that could be used to determine the identity of a user or that which concerns a user's privacy."
Network service providers and other government-sponsored institutions and companies, as well as government personnel should strictly ensure the privacy of personal digital information, it says.
To tackle surging public complaint regarding spam messages, the decision bans organizations and individuals from sending commercial digital information to fixed-line phones, mobile phones or personal email addresses without users' consent.
Violators can face penalties, including the confiscation of illegal gains, license revocations and website closures, as well as a ban on engaging in the web-related business in the future, according to the decision.
A rapidly growing Internet industry and a frail system of laws to protect personal information are behind the increasing amount of online scams, fraud, identity theft and libel in China.
By November this year, China's mobile phone users exceeded 1.1 billion, 3G users had reached 220 million and broadband Internet users stood at 174 million, MIIT figures show.
"Necessary management measures lack a legal basis," Li said on Friday.
Setting legal curbs on the transmission of online information is a common practice worldwide. More than 90 countries and regions have special laws regarding the protection of personal information online.
Analysts have said the new Internet regulations will help, rather than harm, the country's netizens by establishing a legal basis to protect Internet users' legal rights and privacy.
Zhan Zhongle, an administrative law professor with Peking University, said China should set up its own network management system that suits its own needs to "ensure the safe flow of information."
The new rules have also drawn attention from Chinese netizens, with some seeing them as "soothing pills" for those who fear they could one day be victims of malicious rumors, libel or Internet fraud.
"The decision has brought hope to every netizen who has been worrying about their information security," wrote Sina Weibo user "Qujiaoyougaga."
"The Internet needs not only self-purification, but also outside discipline," wrote Sina Weibo user "Zhaojian."