What’s The Deal With Chinese Microblogs & Real Names

In the west, the topic of online censorship is a hot matter, especially with the SOPA and PIPA protests last week. But here in our side of the globe, online censorship has been the norm in some jurisdictions for quite some time now. The Chinese government has recently made moves to enforce the use of verified identities in microblogging services. Will Chinese users balk at this real-name requirement?

In this file photo, Chinese computer users access the Internet at public terminals. Chinese authorities are implementing a real-name policy, in which microblogging services will be required to link users' national ID with their accounts. (AP)

Microblogging is active in China. Even though social networks and services like Facebook and Twitter are banned here in the country, local services like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are very much popular, with about 550 million users between these two top services. With an Internet user-base of more than 500 million and an almost 1 billion mobile subscriber base, China is a big market, after all, and online services are eager to service the market with applications akin to their international counterparts.

However, there is one big difference. In December 2011, the Chinese government issued 16 regulations required of microblogging services and microbloggers. Among these is a real-name policy, in which a user’s microblog account is required to be linked to one’s national ID. The system is quite unlike that of Facebook and Google+. While both international services require the use of a real name on one’s profile, the Chinese regulation will allow pseudonyms, only that service providers are required to have the user’s real name and national ID number on record.

Government is likely to implement the policy in full within the next three months. The rule has already taken effect initially in the five major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen, Guangzhou and Tianjin.

Online Accountability

Authorities say this is one way to ensure “online accountability,” in the light of the potential dangers of microblogging. China’s State Council Information Office head Wang Chen says microblogs “can reflect public sentiment,” and “can also create accountability, and promote the society’s development.” The main benefits of the real-name system will include the reduction of spam and “zombie” accounts used by online marketers to pad follower numbers. Wang says the policy is aimed to counter “false, illegal and obscene information that might harm the healthy development of the Internet in China.”

The move is likewise seen as a way to avoid potential conflicts arising from activism. An example would be the 2011 London riots that were aggravated by social media postings, in which “certain young people and rioters used social networking sites and BlackBerry smartphones to incite violence and coordinate looting.”

Optimism Amid Criticism

But, of course, there are criticisms against this real-name rule. Advocates of online freedom of speech say that the move will obviously reduce freedoms enjoyed by netizens. “If we link online accounts to real identification, then it decreases the level of freedom one enjoys when using the Internet,” writes Chinese blogger Michael Anti.

Danwei.org founder Jeremy Goldhorn is critical, but still optimistic. “It will certainly have a chilling effect on discussion on Weibo, because a lot of people will be wary of speaking their mind if there is going to be a real name attached to their account,” he says. However, microblogging will continue to be active in the region. “I don’t think it’s going to kill off Weibo.”

Weibo users seem to agree. In a running survey among Chinese microblog users, about half say they will continue to weibo (with “weibo” being the equivalent verb of “tweet”) even with the real-identity policy. In contrast, about 25% say they will stop using microblogging services.

For now, it’s a tradeoff between government monitoring and not having access to microblogging services, at all. Knowing China’s stand on online censorship, it’s not likely that authorities will allow unbridled, anonymous access to microblogs. Is there a solution in sight? For now, we suppose that it’s for microbloggers to think before you tweet (or in this case, before you weibo).