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Online anonymity next in Beijing’s internet firing line

China’s government internet censor is set to further restrict internet freedom with a new set of regulations preventing anonymous commenting online.

The Cyberspace Administration of China has announced that from October 2017, internet users will be required to provide their real name in order to register with smaller websites and services.

Already, internet users are required to provide their real name (“real-name registration”) in order to register for the largest social networks and messaging services, including WeChat, Weibo and Baidu Tieba, and to have a mobile phone number.

Internet service providers and other companies such as Baidu and Tencent – which owns WeChat and QQ – will become responsible for requesting and verifying users’ real names when they register, as well as for investigating possible users of fake names, and reporting illegal content to the appropriate authorities.

The legislation could serve to shift the responsibility for policing online content from government agencies to internet companies.

As well as announcing these new regulations on internet posts, the agency also specified content which is forbidden from being published online, citing an article from a 2009 bill intended to regulate internet services.

Internet service providers are forbidden from publishing, reproducing or spreading content which is unconstitutional, pornographic, violent, criminal, hateful, relating to gambling, slanderous, damaging to national security or “national honour and interests”, or capable of “spreading rumours, disrupting social order or destroying social stability”.

These loosely phrased restrictions could cover an enormous amount of entirely innocuous material, as well as political material. Chinese internet censorship made headlines in July when it was reported that images of Winnie the Pooh were banned, due to amusing comparisons made between the yellow honey-loving bear and Xi Jinping, the President of China.

More recently, it was announced that China’s three largest social media companies: WeChat, Weibo and Baidu Tieba were under investigation for violating cyber security laws. China’s Cyberspace Administration accused the companies for allowing users to spread “terror-related material, rumours and obscenities”, apparently jeopardising national security.

China enforces some of the heaviest internet censorship legislation in the world. Many major Western websites are banned, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, and the use of virtual private networks – which previously allowed these censored websites to be accessed with minor difficulty – have recently been subject to a crackdown.

A major new cybersecurity law introduced in June required foreign companies to store data about their customers on servers within China, and has been criticised for its vague wording, leaving foreign businesses vulnerable to interpretation of the law.

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