China's top legislature on Friday approved rules to enhance the protection of personal information online and safeguard public interests.
The 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 (NPC).
The move is meant to "ensure Internet information security, safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal entities or other organizations, and safeguard national security and public interests," according to the decision.
The 12-article 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 telecommunication 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, public criticism lodged on the Internet and the supervisory role of 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 show.
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 technical and other necessary measures to prevent, stop or punish those who infringe upon online privacy rights, requiring relevant service providers to offer support during investigations.
Citizens who find network information that discloses their identity or infringes upon their own rights, as well as those who are harassed by promotional messages, have the right to demand that service providers delete related information or take other necessary measures to stop such practices, 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.
It bans all organizations and individuals from obtaining people's personal digital information via theft or other illegal means, and prohibits them from selling or illegally providing the information to others.
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.
The decision also specifies norms and duties for network service providers regarding the collection, use and protection of citizen's personal digital information.
Service providers will explicitly state their goals, means and scope when collecting or using information, release related rules and obtain users' consent before obtaining the information.
Network service providers and other government-sponsored institutions and companies should strictly ensure the privacy of personal digital information, it says.
The decision bans service providers, as well as government agencies and their personnel, from leaking or damaging users' digital information. It also bans them from selling or illegally providing this information to others.
Network service providers are also responsible for taking measures to ensure the safety of information during business activities and adopting countermeasures when information is leaked, damaged or lost, 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.
The decision also encourages the public to report illegal activity involving online information to supervisory departments.
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.
"Necessary management measures lack a legal basis," Li said at the press conference.
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, figures from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology show. Endi