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Real Name Registration for Blogs: A Cure or a Killer?
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One of the beauties of the Internet, as the Confucius-like saying goes, is that nobody knows if you're a dog. In China, however, the masquerade ball is likely to end soon when bloggers are required to remove their masks of anonymity.


The Internet Society of China (ISC) under the Ministry of Information Industry has proposed that bloggers be required to register their true identities when they open a blog.


"A real name registration system is an inevitable requirement if China wants to standardize and develop its blog industry," said Huang Chengqing, secretary-general of the ISC.


Under the proposed new rule netizens must provide their personal information and identification card numbers to web servers but they'll still be allowed to write under pseudonyms.


The move has sparked an often heated debate on the Internet and within the online industry, academia and officialdom. The pro-side cites widespread online libel and slander that they say come from the poison pens of cowards who hide behind their anonymity. Those against registration say blogging is a modern grass-roots phenomenon that's flourishing exactly because people are free to express themselves.


In a big bang-like explosion China has developed a huge cyber culture with more than 17.5 million bloggers. This is a 30-fold increase in four years. An estimated 75 million Chinese netizens -- more than half the estimated 130 million Internet users -- are regular blog readers, according to the recent ISC report.


While the blog phenomenon has created an unparalleled opportunity for people to express themselves and communicate with others the blogging craze has also caused disputes involving fist waving vitriol, intellectual property violations and the invasion of privacy. "It (real name registration) will help promote a more civil discourse, which is now conspicuously absent on the Internet," said Dr. Huang Huang of the School of Government Administration at Peking University. A recent example of how bad it can get involves an accused adulterer who was hunted down online by slogan-shouting throngs known as the "web mob."


The husband involved started it by revealing some of the sordid details of his wife's affair with a college student. Thousands joined in the denunciation of the philanderer and online sleuths were able to discover and publish the identity and contact information of the student. Even the young man's family received anonymous phone calls threatening "to chop the heads off of adulterers, to revenge the husband." The student's university was also contacted by anonymous writers demanding the school expel him. This has not happened so far.


"These online 'flaming' wars are facilitated by anonymity," said Huang. "Sheltered by their online pseudonyms, netizens see themselves as investigators, prosecutors, judge and jury but never have to answer for what they have done to the college student and his innocent relatives," he said.


Fang Xingdong who founded China's largest blog-hosting website agrees some things could be done to make bloggers a little more responsible but he thinks real name registration is not workable.


"The real name system will only lead to the exile of bloggers to foreign blog service providers as they (the bloggers) will feel their cyber home has been intruded upon and their right to speak curtailed," Fang said.


Fang's website, Bokee, the phonetically translated Chinese word for blog that he coined, also faces a huge financial burden with real name registration.


"I need to pay five yuan (64 US cents) for every name and ID number that I check with the public security. Just think of the cost for the website that might need to check millions of bloggers," said China's godfather of blogging who introduced the concept to China in 2002.


With 10 million bloggers on Bokee his company could be hit up for 50 million yuan (US$6.4 million) to authenticate the names of all his blog writers.


Fang also believes the authorities already have all the power they need to track online abuses. Just as Western countries track down child pornographers or other law breakers, authorities here can locate abusive writers from their IP addresses.


"The ultimate motivation for a real name system lies in bloggers themselves," said Fang. "This solution is a wide-ranging survey and public hearings are crucial before the policy is implemented."


So far neither ISC nor the government has issued details or guidelines on how the personal data is to be managed, secured and accessed.



The average blogging netizens also want to know just what the rules will be for getting past their pseudonyms and if a code of conduct will be imposed on them.


"If I register with my real information I'll always be thinking there is some eye watching whatever I write and it feels bad. I don't want intruders in my spiritual fairyland," said Yao Rui, 25, a software engineer with a multinational company. Her blog is a simple diary that details her daily life that only her circle of friends would understand and be interested in.


Alex Li is another ordinary blogger who is not worried about being attacked by the web mob. "Corrupt officials and law-breaking entrepreneurs are usually the ones who are singled out by online whistle blowers," said the 32-year-old tax counselor. "The real name registration may cause whistle blowers to become victims as they could face retaliation for telling the truth."


Prof. Yang Fengchun deputy director of the School of E-Government at Peking University, said real name registration would discourage grass-roots bloggers from expressing themselves.


"Blogging represents grass-roots media that can help solve social problems and supervise government. Anonymity sometimes is critical for people to be able to speak the truth and express their dissenting opinion," said Prof. Yang.


He said that for thousands of years Chinese society hadn't cultivated enough space for differing voices. "Even if their opinions are obviously wrong, as long as they make good arguments, they contribute to a well-balanced society. Harmony is not made with one voice alone," said Prof. Yang, adding that, "It's not what you say but the right to say that counts."


Prof. Yang thinks the real name system will not be a quick fix for the vitriol as the Internet is a reflection of the society. "If people are not allowed to talk here they just go to another place. There are countless portals, media outlets and other web sites that you can write a blog on," he said, adding that libel and slander issues should be dealt with by the legal system.


Prof. Meng Wei, a research fellow of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the government should not punish everyone for the sins of an uncouth minority. "If people are required to register the government must put in place rules to prevent retaliation against people who hold dissenting views," she said.


"Rules protecting the privacy of identification numbers and other personal information are needed as are rules on protecting people's reputations," she said. "The government should not be vague about its rules and wait until someone speaks out before declaring them off limits and issuing punishment."



Netizens should also use some self-discipline in expressing themselves and be made aware of what is fair comment and what crosses the line, she observed.


"People need to know the difference between expressing their opinions rationally and imposing their judgment on others," she said. "The blog sphere should be a force that promotes more human awareness and understanding." 


(Xinhua News Agency November 13, 2006)

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