China Fences In Its Free-Range Mobile-Phone System

China’s relatively freewheeling mobile-phone system became more restrictive today, as the government began requiring customers to show identification when buying new phone numbers. Under the old arrangement, people could pick up phone numbers from shops or street vendors without supplying their real names.

Unlike American phone companies, which mainly rely on binding customers to a locked phone from a single provider, the Chinese mobile industry allows people to change numbers or carriers simply by swapping out one SIM card for another. Customers could sign up under their own name for monthly billed service, but they were also free to buy prepaid service anonymously.

Now the street-vending system has been shut down until a means is in place for the vendors to register their customers.

According to China Daily, the China Academy of Telecommunication Research estimates that there are about 800 million mobile-phone users in the country, of whom 320 million have not registered their names. Those users will have three years to register.

The government described the new restrictions as designed “to prevent spam, pornographic messages and rampant fraud through the network.” China Daily wrote that registering mobile-phone users is common around the world, and that “India, Japan, Australia, and Singapore have demanded ID for registration in an effort to tackle crime.”

Though mobile phones are well suited for surveillance and contro l, proposals to register users in China had been floated unsuccessfully for years. As recently as February, the government denied it had plans to require names from users.

Unregistered phones are popular with the country’s document forgers, whose preferred form of advertising is to scrawl their mobile-phone numbers in graffiti. It is not clear how the new requirement for identity documents will affect the forgery industry.

In May, in another crime-fighting regulatory measure, Bejiing ordered the city’s 80,000 waiters, karaoke hostesses, and other entertainment-industry workers to register under their real names and to carry tracking ID cards.