Last week's news that China is planning to restrict the use of true anonymity for its Internet denizens sent collective shudders throughout the human rights community - and may have piqued the interest of Western corporations seeing a huge sales and marketing opportunity.
No one with any sort of soul could have been happy about the news on Friday that the Chinese government would be requiring Internet users to provide their real names to Internet service providers, apparently the latest in another round of crack-downs to push down pesky opinions against a government that continues to crack down on citizens.
Open Is Hard
China is something that I continue to watch with interest. Having watched the zenith and the fall of the old Soviet Union, I have the layman's sense that China is holding on hard because they know full well what happens when restrictions are eased. The Soviet experiment in glasnost made that abundantly clear.
Thirty years after the glasnost policies helped widen the cracks in the Soviet political foundation, China is facing a similar problem. It wants to lock down control of its citizens, but it desperately wants to be a player on the global stage. The problem is, the economy of the world is increasingly dependent on technology and the Internet, something that reeks of openness and transparency. There are differences, of course: the Soviet Union tried glasnost from within, and China is trying to deal with openness from without, but the end result may be the same.
Most China pundits also see this particular round of regulations as a short-term solution to the growing problem of exposed scandals within their government; scandals getting back to the Chinese public at-large through the Internet, who have in turn been commenting on the events with increased vigor. It is expected that requiring real names to be collected by Chinese ISPs, regardless of whether a pseudonym is used online, will put the kibosh on such commentary and more.
Who Else Could Benefit
While we get to watch China pull yet-another smack down on freedom of expression, the cynical side of me also has to wonder is outside corporations might not see these newly strengthened policies as an opportunity. When I first read the news coming across the wire last week, my very first thought was that China's announcement sounded just like Google Plus' identity policies.
I'm not sure Google would appreciate their identity policy being equated with China's, but if you sign up for Google Plus or other Google services, somewhere along the line you're going to have to tell them your true identity - or take great lengths to fake Google out. We can argue the merits of this, but for now if you want to swim in Google's pool, this is the price of admission. We're told it's to keep things civil, but knowing the Internet habits of one Brian Proffitt and what he might like to buy could be worth a lot of money, too.
Looking at the policies for Google, Facebook and other social platforms where identity is the real currency to be sold to advertisers and marketers, how could any such vendor be able to resist an entire nation of identified Internet users? The opportunities would be huge.
To its apparent credit, the Chinese government seems to have already anticipated this issue. When the new rules were announced, strong admonishments were issued for any Internet service provider that might care to start selling this valuable information.
Given its value, one wonders how long this professed practice of protecting Chinese identities will last. It should not surprise anyone to see new policies in the future where China will partner with "friendly" multinationals to allow the sale and trade of identity information for marketing and advertising. It'll either be the Chinese government alone, or a revenue-share plan with the private ISPs to make the deal work for both sides, but it's bound to happen. Corporations have no souls, after all.
History has shown that the Chinese government is no less interested in generating revenue than any other political entity, and if such revenue generation were to come at the expense of monetizing its citizens' identities, well, what are they going to do? Complain?
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