China attempts to reinforce real-name registration for Internet users

China is renewing its efforts to get all people who sign up for a mobile number to use their real names. According to state-run news agency China News Service (link via Google Translate), the government has declared that everyone who buys a SIM card in China, even non-citizens, need to show a passport or another form of valid identification.

The report also says that more than 100 million SIM cards have not been registered with real names. This is in spite of the fact that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has required people to use their real names in order to get a mobile number for over six years. The MIIT claims real-name registration protects Internet users from online crime, but of course it also makes censorship easier to enforce.

At the beginning of its attempts at real-name regulation, the MIIT relied on China’s three telecoms—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—to uphold the rule. Then in 2012, it forced Sina Weibo to require users on the popular microblogging service to tie an ID card or mobile phone number to their accounts before they were allowed to post. Then as Tencent’s WeChat became nearly ubiquitous in China, supplanting Sina Weibo in popularity, the state told all messaging apps to require real-name registration.

The latest effort by the Chinese government to enforce the rule through a popular service is an order that will require all users of online payment platforms Alipay and WeChat Pay to link their usernames to an ID number or bank account based in mainland China by July 1.

If the past six years is anything to go by, however, China will continue to have a difficult time upholding real-name registration. For one thing, circumventing the rule is as easy as providing a fake ID number or name, as Charles Custer points out at Tech In Asia.

Relying on the compliance of tech companies is also not a guarantee, because ensuring that hundreds of millions of users have tied their accounts to their real identity is expensive, time-consuming, and can have a negative impact on business. For example, real-name registration has been blamed for Sina Weibo’s slowdown in new registrations.