Blizzard Entertainment has narrowly avoided a public relations nightmare: an unfavorable comparison with Communist China. The game publisher recently announced plans (then shelved them) to require real names (“Real ID”) on its forums. Meanwhile, China has vowed “to reduce anonymity” on the internet. By reversing itself, Blizzard has dodged a major bullet.
Blizzard, publisher of the award-winning MMORPG World of Warcraft, recently unveiled the “Real ID” system (“a New Way to Connect With Your Friends”). Forthwith, all forum users would have to post under their real names. According to the official announcement, “anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID -- that is, their real-life first and last name…”
After a massive outcry, Blizzard reversed itself, allowing forum users to remain anonymous. In similar fashion, China announced plans to institute the “real name system,” requiring forum moderators and users to display their real names.
“We will make the Internet real name system a reality as soon as possible, implement a nationwide cell phone real name system, and gradually apply the real name registration system to online interactive processes,” said Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office.
China’s move comes as no surprise: the country maintains the most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world. Through a combination of IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, URL filtering, and packet filtering, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks sites deemed “subversive to state power,” overly violent, or pornographic. China has accused the US of using social networking sites like Facebook to “spur political unrest” (I can’t make this stuff up).
Back in January, China got into a tussle with Google over its censorship operation. In response to cyber attacks emanating with China, Google declared that it’d no longer censor its search results for Google.cn. Human rights activists praised Google for its moral stance. But the accolades were wholly misplaced—Google was more concerned with attacks on its infrastructure, rather than the moral implications of censorship. Predictably, Google renewed its license with China. In the interim, Google was rerouting Chinese users to its uncensored Hong Kong site. As seen in the screen cap below (showing search results for “Tiananmen square”), this redirection is still in place (as of 7/13/2010).
Prior to this, a search for “Tiananmen square” on Google.cn produced the following results:
Suffice to say, online censorship from China is nothing new. But the announcement from Blizzard was puzzling. Blizzard’s stated goal was to cut down on “flame wars” and “trolling.” Many forum users are more forthright in their opinions (to put it mildly) while safely ensconced under the veil of anonymity.
I can empathize with this reasoning—internet forums are more akin to the Wild West than a serious avenue for discussion. Beyond political censorship, many use the anonymous nature of the web to express wildly defamatory opinions. Anonymity, like alcohol, gives them courage. I have no sympathy for these individuals.
But requiring disclosure of one’s real name conveys Big Brother overtones. It’s a very slippery slope, and calls to mind China’s explicit goal of smashing dissent. China’s “real name system” is but a tool to aid their censorship apparatus. Removing the cloak of anonymity makes critics even less likely to challenge “national unity.” Worse, it alerts authorities to offenders. It’s for this reason that I strongly opposed Blizzard’s “Real ID” requirement. By reversing themselves, they avoided a potentially nasty comparison with the “Great Firewall of China.”
Do you agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below, or send them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org