I have blogged about how I think “real names,”i.e, a widespread comfort-level of pushing your identity on the net, marks one of the big divides between Web 2.0 versus 1.0. Moving from anonymity and pseudonyms to real names opened up a new era with social, as a new generation was at the vanguard of inculcating a comfort level with being outselves on the Internet.
But the thing is that anonymous versus real names is neither unidirectional or unipolar. Having and retaining the choice is critical, allowing for different comfort levels at the intersection of user and content.
In China, we have a potentially profound move in the other direction. More than any country, weibo or Twitter-like networks such as Sina, Tencent, Baidu, and Sohu have led to a spread of information under the cloak of pseudonyms about the state, scandal, and corruption unlike anything else, with hundreds of millions of people spreading and receiving information in this way.
Now, the Chinese have enacted a new law that forces internet companies to require those signing up to use their real names in a bid to tamp down the spread of information and opinion that anonymity enabled, making it easier for the state to censor and punish disfavored content.
As a further footnote, this is an expansion of an existing policy that prevented the publication of certain types of content, As the FT reports:
In 2000, legislation was adopted requiring internet companies to censor the content users published on their sites. A long list spells out the many kinds of posts internet companies must spot, erase and report – ranging from information that threatens national security to that which violates ethnic harmony.
Sina, Baidu and their peers complied by hiring armies of censors. The authorities also started adding their voice to the online cacophony, signing up freelancers with the job of making comments in favour of the government.
We should note with interest that the way a government accomplishes a policy of state censorship in the Internet age is through a distributed network method, by putting the burden on the services themselves to censor in exchange for permission to operate.