Wednesday, February 4th was one odd day for Cyber news. On one hand we had the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is sanctioned the U.S. Congress and a part of the Executive branch, present its stand on net neutrality. On the other, China comes out and begins a crack down of sorts on the Internet and is enforcing a requirement of real name registration. It is the latter that we will focus on in this post. When more info about “Net Neu” becomes available, I will make some comments on that subject.
What did China do now?
We all know that China has a fairly tight grip on their Internet connections going in and out of the country. In jest, their control has become known as the Great Firewall of China. A little play on the physical Great Wall of China that was built to keep the marauding herdsmen from Mongolia and Siberia out. Reports came out of China today that starting March 1, in just less than a month, everyone using an online account in China must register that account with a legitimate and legal name, and use that name when posting. In fact, it appears that the Chinese Government has even taken the step of NOT exempting themselves or key businesses from this rule.
The Internet Masquerade That Led to this:
I used to work on a college campus, Lincoln Christian University. One of the things us “adults” commented upon regularly was that the students would have one demeanor from behind the computer and totally another in person. We often laughed at some of the “hate email” we would get because the student was obviously writing as if the computer was protecting their identity, though their email address or other source on the campus system was well tied to their real name. I had one student ask me, when I confronted about his attitude how I knew it was him. I simply showed him my phone screen with his email address that he sent it from, which was his first initial, middle initial and last name. His response was almost classic in that he was so used to communicating through anonymous or pseudonym screen names on forums, twitter and other similar types of accounts that he forgot that his email address had his real name. He then profusely apologized.
As a few of us looked deeper into and even explored the “masquerade culture” of the Internet, we found that the students were so used to anonymity that they almost were Schizophrenic in their thought and communication. As in my example, to your face they were polite and respectful young men and women. In the dark ether of the Internet they transformed into false and sometimes hateful people. Without having a PhD in psycho-analysis, it is my ascertation that the reason these students were like this is that confrontation is easier when you are not looking at someone in the face.
If you are in customer service you know that people are stronger, more demanding and use more inflating terms and tones on electronic means of communication than they are in face to face scenarios. Somehow, having the mask of the Internet can create monsters out of otherwise normal, good people.
Is Removing the Mask the Way to go?
Is China on to something by requiring people to use real names in their online posts and registrations? If you think I am going to agree with a Communist you may want to pack your bags, it isn’t going to happen! Or is it? Let me say this, in principle the idea is rather nice and takes us back to a time and place when “everybody knew your name.” (Cheers! fans out there, anyone?) I think the concept breeds civility and promotes a respect for others.
However… back to reality. The fact is that the Chinese Communist party that has decreed this rule has no intention of civility or a “TBT” to a different and nicer time. They do however have every intention of extending the reach of their “Big Brother” mentality on the Internet. Without question, the rule is intended to curb free speech, tie speech to an individual and will be used for re-education and enforcement of Communist doctrine. Is there anything more to say than that? Sure there is…
Security and Privacy Implications?
The way I read this rule makes it interesting for IT, Security and Privacy professionals from many different angles. I read that not even the Communist Party or Chinese Government has exempted themselves from compliance and that it applies to anyone registering or using an account in China. Since that is the case, I do not think it is a leap to now say that if your company does business in China, even though you are a U.S. company, you also must comply. If in fact U.S. companies have to comply, there are some small and medium sized businesses that will run into new challenges. Many small and medium sized businesses don’t have compliance teams, or don’t see a need for one. However, these rules expose a myriad of possibilities if you do business here and there. For example, if you work for an airline as a flight attendant or pilot, your company will now have to spend extra time understanding the rule and then making you aware of the implications of using your Facebook or Twitter account while in country. In another example, let’s say a company currently does not use clearly identifiable names in their email addresses (i.e. they use something other than the name). The rule says that they have to change that and now it has to express the real name. By exposing the real name, this company may also need to comply with U.S. privacy and breach notification laws as the email address would become identifiable to the individual. Or what if the company is oblivious to the need and goes about doing business as usual. Failure to comply with a Chinese rule could terminate your business arrangement immediately or cause an undue burden upon the company you are doing business with in China.
The implications are many, but my bottom line analysis is that companies have a lot of work ahead of them to either make their systems compliant with the new rules or create separate systems that are compliant for use in and with Chinese business interests.
In utopia it would be nice if we could “all just get along” (in my best Rodney King voice) and know each others name. It would be nice if we would stop hiding behind the mask of screen names and false identities. It would be nice if we could trust the government of China. But we don’t live in that type of society and we don’t trust the Government of China. That said, if you go to China or do business in China, you will have to find a way to comply.