Reporting from Beijing — In a move that will give the government new powers to police the Internet, China will require individuals seeking to establish personal websites to verify their identities with regulators and have their photographs taken.
The order lifts a ban on registering personal sites that was issued in December as part of a campaign to crack down on Internet pornography.
To apply, an individual must visit his or her local Internet service provider's office, submit an identification card and pose for a photograph. Applications will then be sent to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for review.
The new requirements add another layer of oversight in a country that is already deeply criticized for having some of the world's strictest Internet controls. Regulators have also discussed requiring stricter identity verification to purchase mobile phones and leave comments online.
Google Inc. threatened to quit China last month partly because it was fed up with having to censor its Chinese search engine.
Officials say the new rule is needed to stifle Internet porn.
"Internet security needs to be cured from its roots," Li Yizhong, head of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, was quoted as saying in a state news article Sunday.
Critics say the new requirement has little to do with pornography and instead serves to increase controls and discourage web users from engaging in any activity that challenged the government.
For all its complexity, experts say the key to the government's controls is not its filtering technology or registration requirements, but the willingness of individuals to censor themselves.
"This new measure comes as no surprise, since a key element of control has always been about how to use disciplinary punishment and surveillance to create a self-censorship environment," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. "The government feels increasingly insecure with their ability to control the Internet, therefore more and more policies and controlling practices are aimed at enhancing a self-policing environment."
It's unknown when the new law will take effect. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology did not reply to requests for an interview.
The new requirement only applies to China's domestic domain, known as .cn. Before the government moratorium in December, individuals could establish their own web addresses through third-party websites such as Wanwang (www.net.cn), a sort of Chinese GoDaddy.com. They did not have to submit a photograph and, theoretically, could have provided false identification numbers. Experts say many will now flock to servers overseas to establish websites.
"Things will definitely be much more difficult now," said Chen Nan, a webmaster for an information technology site. "But people are just going to turn to .com domains. If you're not doing anything sensitive, you don't have to worry about getting blocked."
firstname.lastname@example.org Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.