New CAC rules for user names and social media handles

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Earlier today, the Cyberspace Administration of China published new rules concerning usernames, user portrait pictures and brief introductions on blogs, microblogs and other social media and posting services. The gist of the new rules is very simple:

– Usernames, user portraits and their introductions may not contain unlawful or harmful content. Specifically, the document identifies nine categories of prohibited content, which are derived directly from the typical list used for all media products and services. They include content violating national security, leaks of state secrets and harming the national interest, as well as defamation and ethnic discrimination.

– Internet enterprises are responsible for vetting all account registrations, and may not register accounts that contain problematic content. They must also sanction use of false information in registering accounts.

– Internet users must commit to the Seven Baselines.

– A limited real-name system is implemented: the use of anonymous nicknames and user handles is still permitted, but real-name information must be provided to the Internet service provider.

– It is not permitted to open accounts that impersonate, or suggestion connection with, celebrities or organisations. In other words, parodies like MrsStephenFry or, indeed, God, are prohibited.

These rules further escalate the ongoing crackdown against public participation that started with the targeting of Big Vs in the first half of 2013. Their most visible aspect is the mandatory real-name registration system. Efforts towards establishing such a system go back years, sometimes through soft soft measures such as self-regulatory conventions, sometimes through hard regulation. For a long time, these efforts were honoured more in the breach than in the observance. However, a few weeks ago, Global Times reported that verified identity information is held for more than 80 per cent of WeChat accounts, and more than 90 per cent of accounts on other online platforms. Online platforms have been strongly incentivised to collect real-name information, for instance through a Supreme People’s Court document that imposed liability on companies that do not submit such information in cases of defamation.

Hitherto, however, real-name registration and other account registration requirements were fragmented, they were present in documents regulating very specific and well-defined areas of online business. These new rules, however, provide an integrated set of norms for all online information circulation services for which account registration is required (with the exception, perhaps, of e-mail). Furthermore, until the CAC was given control of all online content in the Summer of 2014, social media services were largely regulated by the MIIT, which is much less a censorship body than a technology-oriented department. The CAC, however, has demonstrated over the past months that the maintenance of social order online is its chief priority, and has backed up rhetoric with increasingly strict actions, such as the very public censure of Netease days ago. These new rules must be seen in that light.

What is the purpose of these new rules, and particularly the real-name registration requirement? First, real-name registration creates a deterrent effect not unlike Bentham’s Panopticon. In the eyes of the leadership, the fact that people known they may be watched at all times should discourage those who would seek to use the Internet for nefarious ends. Second, identifiability is the core of any effort to regulate online behaviour. Lawrence Lessig calls this regulability: the ability of governments to learn who did what from where. A collateral benefit to the government is that these rules limit zombie accounts and the sort of pay-per-audience that had become infamous on Weibo.

The prohibition of impersonating accounts is connected with a broader crackdown on satire, humour and other kinds of “mischief” (egao) committed on line. Not that long ago, SAPPRFT prohibited punnery in television programmes. In other words, in a political environment where the leadership seeks to define a pure version of the language that is not up for interpretation or humorous subversion, it is not surprising that parodies of celebrities and (official) bodies is prohibited.

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