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China ends 2012 with new clampdown on Internet activity

The Chinese government is clamping down on anonymous and pseudonymous Internet activity, billing severe new restrictions on web use by its citizens as necessary to combat spam and protect individuals' personal information.

New regulations issued by Beijing require Internet users to give their full, real names to Internet service providers and calls on ISPs to delete "forbidden postings and report them to the government," according to The New York Times. The Chinese government and its proxies have been on a hair trigger of late with regards to web activity deemed to be dangerous, blocking access to Google-run sites and services in November.

China's new regulations require ISPs to "demand that users provide true information about their identities" when contracting for Internet services, the Times reported.

Under the new rules, Chinese Internet users will still be able to post pseudonymously on China's thriving message boards, microblogging sites, and other popular online forums, according to media reports. But with their names now registered with government-regulated ISPs under orders to police user activity more thoroughly, that may prove to be a flimsy layer of protection for online dissidents and others who fall short of towing the Beijing party line.

China already has a long record of censoring Internet activity. The government has been known to block access to foreign websites and shut down domestic sites, scrub unwelcome political content and comments, and even arrest individuals for Internet activity deemed counter to the country's interests.

However, some in China were defending the new Internet regulations. A China Daily op-ed called them a way to "bring order and rules to China's cyberspace." But critics view the new rules as not just threatening to political dissidents but also as potentially crippling to businesses seeking to protect commercial secrets, the Times noted.

There may also be plain old economics at least partially at the root of China's battles with big foreign Internet companies like Google, though most believe that Beijing's censorship crusades are mainly conducted for political reasons.

Google has had a rather tumultuous relationship with Chinese officials in recent years. In January 2010, Google said there were attempts to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. At the time, Google pledged to no longer censor search results in China, even if that meant pulling out of the country entirely, and re-routed all traffic to the uncensored domain.

Unsurprisingly, a Chinese minister warned of "consequences" if Google continued redirecting its results. Finally, the two parties settled on a hybrid solution so that Google could maintain its presence there.

But as watchdog group has noted, China's November takedown of Google sites came in the context of new homegrown competition for the search giant. Google is now the second most popular search engine in China behind Baidu, though it remains among the top five most used websites in the country on a daily basis, according to Alexa statistics.

The Chinese government is not the only political body to express a desire to know the identities of Internet users. Similar sentiments were expressed recently by some US lawmakers in the wake of high-profile cyberbullying incidents.

In May, a few New York lawmakers put forward a bill seeking to ban anonymous commenting on the Internet, but that effort was swiftly laughed out of the state legislature.

The UK government also sought to develop new laws to regulate social media activity in 2012, again following a string of notable trolling incidents. However, there was no mention of adopting a 'real-name policy' in the British context.