Say you are a Chinese citizen wishing to send an anonymous message. What do you do? Invisible-ink notes are unreliable and carrier pigeons out of fashion. Most likely you will get a prepaid SIM card instead, use it to send an SMS, and then dump it.
Until now, prepaid mobile phone SIM cards could be bought anonymously at China’s convenience stores and newspaper stands. But that is changing. Last week, the government began to require cellphone users to provide identification when buying new SIM cards.
The rules apply to everyone, including foreigners visiting the country for a short stay. But mostly they target the 320 million Chinese cellphone users who have yet to be identified. The identities of new card purchasers must be registered (beginning last week). Existing cards can be recharged until 2013, when users will have to register or risk losing their phone numbers.
Chinese officials have talked for years about implementing a ‘real-name’ registration process for mobile phones. Research firm Nielsen says 87% of China’s 814 million subscribers go the prepaid route (i.e. they don’t have a monthly plan but pay as they go by buying SIMs), compared with less than 20% in the US.
Beijing says that makes it hard to track spammers. According to the China Daily, the average Chinese cellphone user gets a dozen spam messages a week, with three of every four receiving messages linked to fraudulent behaviour. So the new rule is supposed to help with a crackdown, by allowing the authorities to pursue the offenders to source.
“With an increasing number of mobile phone users, there is an urgent need to crack down on crime-ridden misuses in the telecommunication industry,” an official at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology told the Global Times.
But some detect another motive: an attempt by the censors to access messaging data in general, and to constrain those who may be sending content that the authorities don’t like.
It is not the first time the Chinese censors have cited pornography or spam as reasons to regulate what users can send. In mid-January, Xinhua reported that Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou were trying a text-filtering system that would filter pornographic material. Those caught sending offending texts risked having their phones blocked.
Since 2008, Beijing has also stepped up its efforts to corral internet and wireless communication, blocking websites like Facebook and Twitter. More recently it shut down a series of local microblogging sites that contained content said to be politically sensitive.
Privacy is also an issue. Revealingly, some fear that the new registration rules may end up creating rather than curtailing spam. The ID requirements are raising concerns that personal information will be resold, says Nan Fang Daily. “Who would be responsible for the possible leak of personal information?” asked one netizen on a website run by the Phoenix television channel. “How will this be solved? Are there any specific rules in law regarding these issues?”
The new rules will most likely spur hackers to find creative ways to circumvent the registration requirement, says Zhou Hanhua, a legal researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It may also create a black market in legally registered SIM cards – with spammers resorting to buying them for a higher price.
Many others are doubtful too, and are waiting to see more details on how the scheme is going to be policed. Just ask Chen Haimin, the owner of a Beijing convenience store. He said he was still selling SIM cards without personal information and he was sceptical that the new scheme would tackle spam.
“How do you know if people are even showing their real ID? People who want to send spam can always come up with ideas to get around the regulations,” says Chen. “And it’s not hard to get a fake ID.”
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