China’s Internet authority has issued a new rule mandating that all messaging app companies require users to register for services using their real names. The change is likely intended to target China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat.
The rule from the State Internet Information Office announced on Aug. 7, 2014, says that users can still use nicknames on their public profiles, but must use their real names when signing up for services. The office says the rule aims to “further promote the healthy and orderly development of public information services, protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and safeguard national security and public interests.”
The new regulation also says only official media accounts can post political news; other public accounts wishing to publish political news will now need to seek prior approval. Public WeChat accounts are typically used by individuals or companies to share news with subscribers. With the popularity of WeChat, they have become a major source of news for Chinese people.
WeChat has grown popular since 2012 and now has almost 400 million active users. During the WeChat crackdown earlier this year, over 100 public accounts were shut down.
WeChat has multiple privacy settings ranging from Peer to Peer Chat, to secret groups, open groups, public platforms where people can subscribe to friends’ news feeds. Despite the fact that WeChat is notorious for its spying practices, many Chinese activists still use the tool for communication, as it offers layers of privacy (or at least, a feeling of privacy) that services such as Sina Weibo do not.
Some see yesterday's change as a violation of privacy, and many worry that it could be used to track down users who help spread news critical of the government. An authority from the State Internet Information Office was quoted by Beijing News as saying, “The regulation helps protect the citizens’ freedom of expression.”
Since May 2014, parent company Tencent has been attempting to verify the real identities of the users behind public accounts by forcing the public account holders to upload their ID and mobile phone information. Before each message was sent to subscribers, the public account runner has to scan his or her own personal WeChat code. This way, Tencent can always find out whoever spread the “illegal” message.
The same announcement was made about Twitter-like service Sina Weibo last year. Although people have found ways to circumvent the rule, the serious crackdown on public accounts on Sina Weibo had a chilling effect all over the country. With the new crackdown on mobile apps, people are likely to watch their words before they post anything sensitive on WeChat.