Chinese economics magazine Caijing reported today (link via Google Translate) that the National People’s Congress is considering a new law that would require Internet users who wish to register for services to use their real names (more information from Xinhua, China’s official news agency, is available here in English). While the Chinese government says the legislation will “safeguard” Internet users from defamation, fraud and identity theft, service providers and many netizens have complained that the proposed regulations are yet another move by the Chinese government to restrict freedom of information.
One of the companies that will be the most greatly affected if the law is passed is Sina Weibo, China’s massively popular microblogging service, which boasts more than 400 million members. Back in January, China took its trial program requiring microblog users to disclose their identities to the government nationwide. In May, however, Sina Weibo admitted that it had not yet fully implemented real-name registration, despite being instructed to by the Chinese government. The company said this put Sina Weibo at risk of “potentially severe punishment” by the government, but, as it noted in its 20-F filing last spring, implementing the new regulations is not only time consuming, but could also potentially decimate its user base:
Although we have made significant efforts to comply with the verification requirements, for reasons including existing user behavior, the nature of the microblogging product and the lack of clarity on specific implementation procedures, we have not been able to verify the identifies of all of the users who post content publicly on Weibo. We believe successful implementation of user identity verification needs to be done over a long period of time to ensure a positive user experience. However, we may not be able to control the timing of such action, and, if the Chinese government enforces compliance in the near term, such action may severely reduce Weibo user traffic. The implementation of user identity verification has deterred new users from completing their registration on Weibo and a significant portion of those who have provided identity information to us was rejected by the Chinese government database, which means that these users will have limited posting ability in the future and may cause the level of activity of Weibo users to decrease over time.
Since then, Sina Weibo has made several efforts to encourage users to register with their real names instead of a pseudonym, but the attempts have been arguably half-hearted. For example, in May, Sina Weibo launched Weibo Credit, which encourages users to report each other for violations of various rules.
This is the latest move by the Chinese government this month to exert greater control over Internet users. Last week, three foreign VPN providers said their servers were being blocked in China apparently because of changes to the “Great Firewall.” Users had previously been able to use the VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter and some web searches. The Chinese government also clamped down on Web access before the 18th Communist Party Congress in November.