Why China's 'Real Name' Internet Policy Doesn't Work

The government's latest attempt to limit speech online faces serious roadblocks



Real name registration has applied to Sina Weibo and many other popular microblogs in China for over a year now. But you wouldn't know it.

The rule requires web users to register their real name and their national identification number with online service providers before posting comments on providers' websites. The purported targets are the usual suspects: libel, fraud, pornography, and rumor. Free speech advocates have raised legitimate concerns.

Governments employ a number of methods to exorcise "bad speech" from the Internet. Real name registration is just one tool of the trade. Some might suggest that real name registration and other methods, such as the occasional "purge" of outspoken commentators, is working for China. But the past year of online activism -- which has sometimes led to offline collective action -- doesn't offer much evidence that Weibo is entering a cooling off phase.

In fact, implementing real name registration is easier said than done. Obviously, online service providers and citizens have incentives to comply with the policy or else risk serious punishment. But they may have better reasons to resist. It's fair to ask: Do the relevant government agencies have the wherewithal to force the issue?

Successful implementation of real name registration policies will vary depending on the type of media. We can understand different types of social media along a spectrum, with social-driven social media on one end and content-driven social media on the other. Platforms like Facebook, which are largely social-driven -- that is, structured around interpersonal relationships --are going to have an easier time getting users to comply with real name policies compared with more content-driven platforms like microblogs.

Users of microblogs generally care more about what is being tweeted -- the content -- rather than who is doing the tweeting. This helps explain why many Weibo users don't care that information is coming from unknown sources. In fact, anonymously generated content may be exactly the kind of juicy tidbits that microblog users have signed on to see.

Taking this one step further, if real name registration were successfully implemented, and anonymity were effectively banned on the Internet, that would likely degrade content in the eyes of platform users and probably drive users away from China's popular microblogs.

Real name registration is incredibly costly to online service providers tasked with implementing the rule. There is the administrative burden of verifying whether the identification details of each of over 500 million accounts are genuine. Then there are the information security costs related to keeping users' personal information safe from theft. When South Korea had a similar real name registration rule in effect, 35 million social media users had their personal information stolen. From the start, China's profit-driven service providers, like NASDAQ-listed Sina, would prefer to avoid incurring these additional costs.

Further complicating the issue, China's social media market is fragmented. The state's decision to deny market access to foreign social media brought about the proliferation of a multitude of domestic Chinese platforms, now engaged in fierce competition for market share. Because domestic Chinese service providers know that the decision to weed out anonymous accounts could negatively affect content and drive away users, nobody wants to be the first to enforce the policy. Incentives lead to a kind of "prisoner's dilemma" characterized by foot-dragging.

For many citizens, life without online social interaction is unimaginable. Social media pervades everyday lives. In societies where the state has restricted traditional media, the Internet offers an eye-opening and unique atmosphere. Moreover, the ability to connect to a broader network is meaningful to people because it affirms their individual dignity. Minorities and people open to unconventional views can see that they are not alone.

Universal awareness of real name registration and the consequential degree of targeted monitoring would diminish this unique and liberating experience. While a relatively small number of netizens rely upon online anonymity to express themselves, the imposition of real name registration is felt by wired societies broadly.

All this means that a government seeking to enforce real name registration has to deliver swift and harsh punishment to online service providers that drag their feet in enforcing the policy. But what options do governments have on the table?

Authorities might logically deduce that the best way to keep online service providers under control is to agglomerate users onto one or a few of the more pliant platforms. But because of the "first-mover problem," real name registration works to undermine market consolidation.

Authorities could, of course, shut down a platform that is not fully cooperating with the real name policy. For three days in early April 2012, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo shut down their comment functions, ostensibly to prevent rumors, after the sacking of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai. A prolonged shutdown, however, could produce widespread public discontent, further fracture the market, and probably force the government to deal with new market entrants, who may be even less cooperative than the "devils that they know."

Without a credible alternative, the government's ability to force real name registration upon online service providers is limited. In time, some officials may conclude that insisting upon real name registration is more trouble than it is worth.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.