Media regulation

Xiamen to kill off anonymous posting

Local Xiamen media reported on Wednesday that the Xiamen Bureau of Industry and Commerce is preparing to require the use of real names on the Internet.

BIC vice-director Tian Feng revealed on 3 July that in mid-June, the Bureau began a draft edition of Measures for Management and Disposition of Harmful and Unhealthy Information on the Internet, which the municipal government will promulgate in the near future. The Measures will apply to more than one hundred thousand websites registered in Xiamen.

Mid-June, of course, was shortly after the major public protests against the construction of a PX chemical plant close to the city; the Internet played an important role in organizing the protests. Were the Measures hastily drawn up in response to that event? Southern Metropolis Daily found contradictory answers.

Some excerpts from the SMD report:

The (Draft) Measures require websites to promptly filter, block, and delete harmful and unhealthy information according to a keyword list provided by the municipal Party Publicity Office and the Politics and Law Commission.

The draft also requires the establishment of a management mechanism for websites and discussion forums, including systems for quick deletion of unhealthy information (不良信息快速删除机制), discussion with individuals responsible for offending websites (违规网站责任人约谈机制), punishment of offending websites (违规网站处罚机制), and circulation of directives about online public opinion (网站舆情吹风会制度). Moderators of political boards would be required to use their real names, and functionality for freely starting sub-forums and posting anonymous comments would be canceled. Forum posts would be screened before they are posted.

Violators who disseminate harmful or unhealthy information would be handled according to the Law on Punishment, including such measures as detention or fines.

One measure that attracted attention was the cancellation of anonymous posting. The typical understanding of this is that registration is required before posts can be made, because previously many websites prohibited posting without logging in; posters had to use an Internet handle.

But this may not be the case with Xiamen's Measures.

"All posting must implement a real name system," said Tian Feng during an interview with a reporter at this paper. According to the Measures, posting on Xiamen websites in the future will require the use of a name from an ID card. "We are the first in the entire country to do this," said Tian Feng.

Related to PX? Unrelated?

Why have these Measures come out?

According to what Tian Feng revealed, the Measures were determined at a special conference held in Xiamen on 18 June. Subsequently, relevant agencies worked intently on consultation, drafting, and editing. The first draft of the Measures, the country's first local government legislation on supervision of website content, was completed in under half a month.

"Once, a Shandong investigation into an online pyramid marketing case came to Xiamen. We asked, why did you come to Xiamen to investigate? They said that the website server was located in Xiamen." Tian Feng said that Xiamen's IT industry is quite developed; more than 100,000 websites are registered in Xiamen, behind just Beijing and Shanghai. "We are manifestly lagging on the management end," said Tian Feng.

In the Xiamen PX affair, many netizens posted comments opposing the project, and even made appointments to march in opposition. A well-known local BBS, XMFish, was closed for a time.

"After the opposition to the PX project came out, the government felt that it ought to take chage of online content," said Tian Feng.

However, Lin Congming, vice-director of the Publicity Department of Xiamen's party committee, denied this view. He said that instituting the Measures was entirely unrelated to the PX project incident. Xiamen has many websites, but supervising online content is not just Xiamen's local problem. It is a national problem. Like the rest of the country, Xiamen is continually exploring ways to supervise the Internet.

Lin Congming said that according to the Measures, the "individuals who organized and incited opposition to the Xiamen PX project" online recently would be subject to punishment.

There's one other point of contention between the BIC and the Publicity Department. Tian Feng said that the BIC announced the Measures after receiving a signal from the mayor; Lin Congming told SMD that it was inappropriate for BIC vice-director Tian Feng to disclose the information, and that the city government had no part in the disclosure.

SMD cartoon: Individual is accessing "Xiamen Website BBS." An arm reading "Control" grabs him. He says, "I'm just saying what I feel, what's wrong with that?" The voice says, "First, drop the sock-puppet."

Lian Yue, the writer and blogger who was instrumental in spreading the word about the PX project, discussed the Measures in a column in today's SMD titled "Make one typo and we'll run your ID":

Laws are not absent in China, but many laws are not respected, thus causing the authority of the law to be considerably watered-down. At times, the harm to the public trust is far worse than having no law at all.

Of course, common people are unqualified to violate the law - if you report an official who has indeed committed a crime, the informant will perhaps commit some sort of strange crime. Like an environmentalist such as Taihu's "Eco-Warrior" Wu Lihong, who was arrested after suddenly committing a crime. China has no lack of environmental laws, but so what? Can't we see with our own eyes one environmental disaster after another? So I wonder, are none of those people who violate environmental laws common people? Many of them are government actions. Just as SEPA vice-minister Pan Yue said, if officials who harm the environment in order to burnish their career record are not pursued, it may be difficult for the environment to improve.

SEPA has always called for "public participation," to form a strong force for oversight. Indeed, when the supervision of the masses is put into play, it can halt projects that harm the environment. It was only after "public participation" expressed itself that the threat of Xiamen's PX project was discovered by SEPA; the local government had no choice but to admit its error - even though to date it has not yet disclosed its environmental report as required by law.

The awakening of public power can perform a key influential function in environmental protection. That small step for Xiamen's citizens should have become a giant leap for the progress of environmental protection in China. Unfortunately, some local Xiamen officials perhaps did not see this as an honor, and subconsciously felt that they had lost face. This is apparent from the news in the story, "Xiamen BIC says anonymity will be abolished when posting to websites" in the 5 June issue of SMD.

And in The Beijing News, Qin Guan wrote that the Measures violate the spirit of the Internet and of good government:

To be sure, in the great mix of the Internet there are areas of "unhealthy information" and "harmful information" as well as a great banquet of ideas.

However, one thing is certain: compared to Xiamen's netizens, who number in the millions, bad apples are a tiny minority; in the recent PX storm, didn't the local government use the description "a handful of individuals with other ulterior motives" in its public proclamations?

In fact, the censorship mechanism already in place in Xiamen is not at all imperfect. On the one hand, the majority of websites have online administrators in charge, and on the other, if people cross over the line into illegal territory, I trust that judicial agencies will be able to find them easily using current technology. It is obvious that the local government cannot control the "deviant words and actions" of a tiny minority without making additional trouble for the rest of society. If we follow this logic, then we could say that the best way of building an Internet free of pests is not implementing an online real-name system - rather, establish a whole process, and let every netizen present a detailed report of their online activity to government agencies every time they go offline.

Of course, this writer believes that imposing a real-name system is a "mission impossible," is more importantly due to the fact that this sort of regulation is at odds with the tide of social development. No question, the Internet is the offspring of China's connection to the world, an important force that China relies on to reform the past, promote social change and cultural growth. Russell said, "To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness." China's Internet is such a diverse feast for the eyes today because, despite setbacks over the last decade or more, it still is open to everyone, and it still upholds the Internet's spirit of unprecedented freedom, equality, and tolerance.

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If the measure could really be conducted, then the 'cost' of physically showing up in a social event will be more or less equivalent to that of showing virtually on the web. It may not be a bad thing in the course of China's civil society build-up.

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