China’s government has tightened internet controls with a law that requires users to register their names after a flood of online complaints about official abuses rattled Communist Party leaders.
Authorities say the law will strengthen personal information protection. But it also is likely to curtail the internet’s status as a forum to complain about the government or publicise corruption.
“Their intention is very clear: It is to take back that bit of space for public opinion, that freedom of speech hundreds of millions of Chinese internet users have strived for,” said Murong Xuecun, a prominent Chinese writer.
The rules approved by China’s national legislature highlight the tension between the ruling Communist Party’s desire to reap technology’s benefits and its insistence on controlling information.
Beijing encourages web use for business and education but tries to block material deemed subversive or obscene. It has steadily stepped up censorship, especially after social media played a role in protests that brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
The latest measure requires users to provide their real names and other identifying information when they register with access providers or post items publicly.
“This is needed for the healthy development of the internet,” said Li Fei, deputy director of the legislature’s Legal Work Committee, at a news conference.
Mr Li rejected complaints that the public will be deprived of a forum that has been used to expose misconduct.
“The country’s constitution protects citizens’ rights in supervising and criticising the state and government officials’ behaviour,” he said.
The measure comes amid reports that Beijing might be disrupting use of software that allows web users to see sites abroad that are blocked by its extensive filters.
At the same time, regulators have proposed rules that would bar foreign companies from distributing books, news, music and other material online in China.
The government has given no indication how it will deal with the technical challenge of registering the more than 500 million Chinese who use the internet.
Microblog operators, two of which say they have more than 300 million users each, were ordered last year to confirm the identities of users, but acknowledge they have yet to complete that task.
This week, 70 prominent Chinese scholars and lawyers circulated an online petition appealing for free speech, independent courts and for the ruling party to encourage private enterprise.