China is working to remove anonymity from blockchain usage. In a proposal draft published Friday by the country’s Cyberspace Administration, which overseas digital security and content regulation, authors wrote that those who want to use blockchain-based information services will have to register their full names and national ID card numbers with the providers of those services, reported the South China Morning Post.
Providers would also have to censor content that could compromise national security—with the Chinese government presumably deciding what that looks like—and save customer data to potentially turn over to government authorities.
The South China Morning Post cited one particular incident that may have precipitated this anti-anonymity proposal. In April, someone anonymously published an open letter on the Ethereum blockchain in which they described an alleged sexual harassment cover-up at a prominent Chinese university by attaching the letter to an ether transaction. The letter’s author provided a name (Yueluo), but the poster remained anonymous. (You can read it here by selecting “View Input as UTF-8.”) Though the alleged cover-up took place years ago, it was censored when Yueluo first tried posting it on social platforms Weibo and WeChat. This prompted the poster to turn to the Ethereum network, finding a censor-proof, public platform where they could post the letter. That letter now remains on the Ethereum blockchain, where, barring a a targeted (financially prohibitive) 51 percent attack, it cannot be erased.
It’s not clear as to whether that instance directly prompted China’s new proposal. However, it raises an important question regarding anonymity in sexual harassment and assault reporting.
A survey of 6,592 students in China conducted by the Guangzhou Gender Education Center and Beijing Yipai Law Firm found that while 69 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed, only four percent reported it to their schools or police. Sex crimes are often among the least reported (here are some statistics for the U.S.), as those who decide to report can face immense public scrutiny, victim-blaming, and are relatively unlikely to get justice. To circumvent this, many schools in the U.S. have implemented anonymous systems for students to disclose incidents of assault and harassment. Minnesota even passed a law in 2016 requiring colleges to offer websites where students can make anonymous incident reports.
In China, though students from more than 50 universities have written open letters like the one the South China Morning Post referenced, those stories haven’t been able to spread easily across social media, according to a January report from Reuters. The country is quick to take down such social media posts, while the state-run news media minimizes coverage. For the Ethereum blockchain to have successfully served as a home to an open letter about an alleged sexual harassment cover-up is a big deal.
China has historically been strict on both blockchain and media platforms. Using most social platforms in the country requires real name sign-ups, and in August, WeChat’s parent company Tencent shut down a handful of accounts that focused on blockchain and cryptocurrency discussion. The accounts had apparently violated rules about using social messaging services, but the rules went unspecified.
Though the Cyberspace Administration’s proposal is still just a draft, it doesn’t necessarily take established rules to change how companies in China operate. In January 2017, after the government-run People’s Bank of China mentioned it would start investigating bitcoin trading, the country’s three major bitcoin exchanges announced that they would start implementing practices to “curb speculation.”
The government’s investigation wasn’t indicative of new legislation, but it didn’t need to go that far to get cryptocurrency exchanges to make swift changes. This new proposal requiring blockchain information services users to register with their full names and ID card numbers may not become law, but that doesn’t mean companies providing those services won’t adhere to it—potentially leaving one less anonymous platform for those wishing to anonymously report sexual harassment in China.