For the Chinese government, social media parody accounts are no laughing matter. The country's latest internet crackdown targets web users who set up pseudonymous accounts using the names of Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Chinese officials, celebrities, and media outlets such as the People's Daily newspaper, to name just a few soon-to-be restricted web handles.
Under new rules announced Wednesday by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Chinese citizens will be forced to use their real names and personal information when registering online. The new policy is set to take effect March 1.
The restrictions are aimed at stemming the spread of rumors and eliminating a "vulgar culture" online, the CAC wrote on its website Wednesday. The regulator said it is targeting handles containing "malicious content," such as cultist, pornographic or extremist information, that either violates Chinese law, undermines national security, or is seen as rumormongering, according to state run-media Xinhua news agency.
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The head of the CAC's mobile internet bureau, Xu Feng, maintains that the regulations — which will affect all blogs, instant messaging services, online forums, and even comment sections — are for the benefit of the country's almost 650 million internet users.
"This does not restrict internet users, instead, it protects their legitimate rights," Xu said at a news conference Wednesday.
The new measures are the latest in a series of clampdowns on web freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in early 2013. For the Chinese government, the internet is seen as a frontier where dissidents, activists, and opponents have access to assert ideological authority. To curb that ability, the Communist Party has long sought to uncover the identities of users.
"Real name registration is not a new phenomenon by any means," Madeline Earp, a research analyst with international internet watchdog Freedom House, told VICE News. "It's been a goal of the leadership in China for several years. What's been difficult has been defining and implementing it."
"In practice people find ways around it," Earp said, adding that such requirements have sparked increased demand for black market identification numbers and other personal identity markers. "There's almost always a way round. People will still find a way to communicate and still look for tools that will let them do that anonymously."
The CAC currently relies on the cooperation of internet companies to enforce content censorship, user registration rules, and other regulations. The new rules stipulate that internet service providers (ISPs) will be held accountable for "illegal" content, and will soon be required to up the ante on their supervision of users and expedite their response to public tip-offs.
China has a sophisticated censorship network dubbed "The Great Firewall," but it can be circumvented using virtual private networks (VPNs).
The country's leadership has endured some sectors of society, including business owners, to use VPNs as a way to maintain the country's competitive edge in the global marketplace. But last week, the New York Times reported that China has now moved to disrupt the services of a number of VPN companies, making it virtually impossible for many to work around the restrictions.
"The rules are starting to trespass on the business community who have seen themselves as a little bit immune from these restrictions," Earp said. "There's a whole group of people — the business elite — now noticing what the majority of people have to deal with on a regular basis."
But Earp said that the Chinese government is not ultimately aiming to shut down all information or "wall off" China the way North Korea has been completely isolated.
"It's a pressure cooker environment," she said. "It's more about maintaining a delicate balance so that information is subject to direct control of propaganda authorities. Some people will still be able to access the necessary information while other people will be kept in the dark."
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