The Beijing municipal government announced new rules yesterday requiring internet users to register on Chinese microblogging platforms with their real names before they are allowed to publish posts. Under the new so-called “Weibo Development and Management Regulations”, microblog users would still be able to continue to post under nicknames, but each account can now only be activated if they are first tied to a real identity. Users who do not register within the next three months may find their accounts frozen and unable to publish new posts.
Sina Weibo and Sohu Weibo, two of the leading microblogging platforms which are both headquartered in the capital, are expected to comply with the new rules with immediate effect. Tencent (of QQ fame) is located in Shenzhen and for now unaffected by the new regulations which are widely expected to be rolled out to the rest of China soon.
Sina, the most popular (and also the unruliest) microbloggin platform, is the canary in the coal mine here. News of the new regulations has already sent its stock plunging to a 15-month low in New York trading.
While a storm of protest has erupted on the Internet over the chilling effect the new rules are expected to have on the Weibos, their long-term impact is still a question mark. Indeed, as the New York Times notes:
Many prominent commentators and writers with influence over public opinion already post under their real names. For example, Pan Shiyi, a wealthy real estate developer who posts regularly, has more than seven million followers. He recently used his platform to advocate stricter air pollution reports from the Beijing government.
“In fact, serious weibo users have already opted to use their real names out of their own interests,” said another editor at Tencent who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about government policy.
Bill Bishop of Digicha has posted an English translation of the new regulations here. He notes:
Some are saying that because real name registration failed in online gaming and mobile phone registration it will also fail for weibo. I think that is wrong.
First, these rules clearly come straight from the top, and specifically from the decision of the recent 6th Plenum of the 17th Party Congress (see 6th Plenum Report Suggests China Will Strengthen Internet Management | DigiCha). Second, Baidu’s Shuoba proved a system exists to authenticate real names in real time, at a cost of 4 RMB per verification. Third, the tiny number of sites (Sina, Tencent, Netease and Sohu) at which real name registration will matter, unlike the tens of thousands of mobile phone retail sales locations or the dozens of online game companies, means that Beijing has just a handful of points of leverage to force implementation.
If Beijing wants the big Weibo operators to authenticate user identities in real time, it will be done, possibly at vast expense to Sina and the other firms.
Zhan Jiang of the China Media Project offers four compelling reasons why Beijing should withdraw the new rules. They are worth a read and may be found here.
CCTV’s report on the new regulations: