The Internet Users’ Account Names Management Regulations (the “New Rule”) promulgated by the Cyberspace Administration of China (“CAC”) came into effect on March 1, 2015. The New Rule requires real-name registration for accounts registered with blogs, micro-blogs, instant-messaging services, online-forums, news comment sections and other related services (“Accounts”). Effectively, internet service providers (“ISP”) will be required to ensure real-name registration for any new Accounts on their websites and to ensure that usernames, as well as the portraits, brief introductions, and other such registered content used in these Accounts, do not contain anything illegal or improper.

Under the New Rule, an ISP must verify the internet user’s true identity before approving the registration of a new Account.

An internet user will still be allowed to select his/her/its own username and avatar, but their true identity is to be provided to and recorded with the ISP. If the ISP finds the user used a false identity to register an Account or does anything illegal or improper via the Account, the ISP must request the user to rectify its use of the Account, or suspend or deregister the Account.

According to CAC, the New Rule is part of an effort to impose real-name registration in cyberspace. However, quite a few provisions of the New Rule are vague and make it difficult to know how to comply. For instance, the New Rule does not specify which types of documents or information (e.g. ID number) will be used to verify the users’ true identity. Nor does it provide any substantial penalty for any violation. Since China operates one of the world’s most sophisticated censorship mechanisms, and cyber laws have been rapidly evolving, especially during the last few years, it will be worthwhile for any affected business to closely follow developments in this area of law.

In addition, the New Rule may have specific implications for digital evidence used in litigation. A recent legislative interpretation (Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on the Application of the PRC Civil Procedural Law, issued on January 30, 2015 and effective on February 4, 2015) first defines “electronic data” (an acceptable form of evidence under the PRC law) as including “information formed or stored in electronic media through the exchange of e-mail or electronic data, online chat records, blogs, micro-blogs, SMS, electronic signatures and domain names.” A recent case decided by a Shanghai court rejected the admission of a recording of an online chat history, as it was impossible to prove the true identity of the parties to the chat. The real-name registration, once enforced, may help create a way to prove the identity of the internet users and accordingly drive the development of digital evidence in China.