China demands ID from all buyers of mobile phone numbers

Guardian
01.09.2010
By Associated Press in Beijing

Government says it hopes junk will be sunk by rules on new numbers, but critics fear more monitoring of citizens

China began requiring identification from anyone buying a new mobile phone number today in what it says is a bid to stamp out junk messages.

But critics say the move gives the government a new tool for monitoring its citizens.

The rules apply to everyone, including foreigners visiting the country for a short stay, the China Daily newspaper reported.

The paper said the regulation was “the latest campaign by the government to curb the global scourge of spam, pornographic messages and fraud on cellular phones”.

Low-cost mobile phone sim cards are readily available in China, at convenience stores, newspaper stands and airport kiosks.

Until now, they could be bought anonymously with cash and used straight away, as in the UK. But such a system makes it difficult to track down spammers.

The ID requirement is raising new privacy concerns and is likely to upset some customers unwilling to give out personal information for fear it will be resold, said Duncan Clark, managing director of BDA China, a technology market research firm.

Wang Songlian, research co-ordinator with the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the requirement fits a pattern of tightening government control over new communication technologies.

China censors internet content it deems politically sensitive and blocks many websites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Following ethnic riots in western China’s Xinjiang, international phone and internet links to the region were suspended for months.

The new regulation will probably not affect Chinese dissidents, many of whom already have their phones closely monitored.

But it could help police track down ordinary people who take part in spontaneous protests, Wang said.

China has seen a growing number of protests sparked by labour disagreements, anger over pollution and other issues.

China has more than 800m mobile phone numbers already in use. The Global Times newspaper reported today that 320m of those were bought without real-name registration. The numbers will have to be reregistered by 2013 or could be suspended, the newspaper said.

China Unicom, one of the country’s three major state-owned phone carriers, says on its website that the ministry of industry and information technology requires real-name registration for all new phone numbers starting today.

A company official said China Unicom would strictly implement the new rule.

China Mobile – the world’s biggest phone carrier in terms of numbers of subscribers – would also comply with the directive, said a spokesman.

The ministry of industry and information technology did not respond to questions about the new rules.

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