Source: Wall Street Journal By Carlos Tejada
BEIJING—China appears to be gearing up for a crackdown on its domestic Internet after a series of online exposés of corruption underscored the growing power of social media there.
Senior members of China’s National People’s Congress on Monday began considering a bill that would require users to report their real names to Internet and telecom companies, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. The draft bill is designed to protect personal information, Xinhua said. Proposals to the rubber-stamp congress often reflect the higher-level concerns of the Chinese Communist Party, signaling legislators will likely take action on the issue.
China’s publishing regulator also is considering new rules that would forbid foreign-owned companies from publishing material on the Internet in China. The rules are a reiteration of current policies, but the proposal suggests regulators will more vigorously enforce them, experts say.
The moves follow calls in China’s state-run news organs in recent days for greater Internet oversight. In an editorial last week, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, argued that “damage caused to individuals or society isn’t limited to the virtual world.” They also follow a continued clampdown of services known as virtual private networks that some in China use to bypass Beijing’s Internet censors.
The moves indicate China’s new leadership wants to keep a tight rein on electronic outlets that are offering increasing checks to their power. China’s Twitter-like microblogs and other social media have developed into a robust forum for national discussion in a nation where officials keep a firm grip on newspapers and broadcasting.
“The recent measures appear to be steps taken in a bid to ensure the primacy of the party’s messages to online audiences in the same way it has accomplished that with traditional media,” said David Wolf, chief executive of consulting firm Wolf Group Asia.
Two Chinese agencies that oversee Internet regulation, the State Internet Information Office, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Public Security, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
China’s online community has helped bring down a number of lower-level officials caught in compromising positions in recent weeks. They include Lei Zhengfu, an official in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, whom party officials ousted after he appeared to be caught having sex with a much younger woman in a video that was leaked online. Mr. Lei told a local reporter the video must have been “modified with Photoshop.”
Others have been ousted after online activists found they owned more luxury watches and houses than a typical government official could afford.
Like other countries, China is grappling with tricky questions about digital personal information that could potentially be misused by companies and other users. “The question is whether they’re really protecting personal information, or whether it goes beyond that,” said David Bandurski, researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, which tracks China’s Internet controls.
It isn’t clear whether a real-name system in the draft bill would be implemented. A similar requirement for China’s microblogs announced last year got bogged down in technical difficulties and wasn’t fully implemented. Under the bill being considered, authorities would establish an identity-management policy under which users would disclose their names to service providers but could still use other names publicly when posting material.
Chinese officials have to walk a fine line with their Internet control efforts, said Mr. Bandurski. Onerous restrictions could stunt the development of the Internet sector, which has prospered in China and now offers potent rivals to the likes of Google Inc. GOOG -0.86%Officials at microblog operator Sina Corp. SINA -1.62%and Internet conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd. 0700.HK -0.56%didn’t respond to requests to comment, while a representative at search operator Baidu Inc. BIDU -1.96%declined to comment. China is the world’s largest Internet market, with 538 million users, according to government data.
The makeup of the Communist Party’s leadership, unveiled last month, has sparked concerns from Mr. Bandurski and others that controls could become even tighter. China’s former propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan, who is widely believed to have played a key role in China’s Internet management in recent years, was elevated to the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its top decision-making body. His successor as propaganda chief, Liu Qibao, this month called for the party to “conduct more research on how to strengthen the construction, operation and management of the Internet and promote mainstream online themes.”
The foreign media publishing restrictions being considered by GAPP echo existing rules, said Steve Dickinson, an attorney at Harris & Moure specializing in China law, and he noted they could also be changed before they come into law. But they indicate an increased willingness to clamp down on those who take material published abroad under a foreign copyright and publish it wholesale in China. “This is an evasion of the control structure and of course the government wants to stop it,” Mr. Dickinson said.
Many foreign media outlets that offer Chinese-language services, including The Wall Street Journal, use servers outside China.