With the U.S. government trying to pass what Google's Sergey Brin has called "China-like censorship," China has found a new way to tamp down free expression on the Internet: make people use their real names. After the Chinese government realized that Weibo, a Twitter-esque microblogging service, gave rise to "irrational voices and negative opinions and harmful information" -- in the words of Wang Chen the deputy director of Communist Party's propaganda department -- it has decided to clamp down by requiring all bloggers to register their identities with the government, reports The New York Times' Michael Wines. A lesson for U.S. Internet users, after old-school government control of websites comes censorship 2.0: Total removal of online anonymity.
If you think this can't possibly happen in the U.S., this identity issue is already being debated and enforced, however the main actors have been the tech giants who are championing the SOPA protests. When Google launched its social network Google+, like China's policy, required users to register under their real names. After some public outrage, Google revised that policy. But the debate still lives on with people like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg calling Internet anonymity unethical. "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity," Zuckerberg has said. But it's not just Internet folk that are debating and enforcing these issues, our favorite SOPA advocate, Lamar Smith, has introduced legislation (the Internet Safety Act) that would require Americans to register every time they used the Internet.
In China, the real-name policy is an assault on China's growing (and powerful) blogger community. Serving as a Chinese breaking news service -- like Twitter here -- Weibos has provided alternative (and accurate) perspectives to the state-monitored media service. We saw it earlier this year, when bloggers fleshed out a full report of a covered-up train accident. "I just watched the news on the train crash in Wenzhou, but I feel like I still don’t even know what happened. Nothing is reliable anymore. I feel like I can’t even believe the weather forecast. Is there anything that we can still trust?" wrote one blogger, highlighted by The New York Times. A few months after that incident, the government implemented a trial program, forcing users to disclose their identities in order to blog. Though, on the site users can still use nicknames, the fact that the government can trace an avatar back to an identity will discourage some from speaking out, argues Peking University Journalism professor Hu Yong. "Certainly some people will not dare to speak out about certain issues," he told Wines.