Chinese authorities have recently decided to expand its "online accountability" regulations, with users of microblogging services now required to verify and use their real names. With today's increasing concerns on online censorship and freedom of information around the globe, how will this new regulation affect the growth of social networks and services that thrive on user-generated content?
The state of the Internet in China is a complicated one. The biggest technology brands swear by the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of having their products made in China. The New York Times recently ran an article describing how it's only in China that major supply and manufacturing adjustments can be done in a matter of hours. China is also one of the world's biggest markets for online and mobile services, with close to 1 billion mobile subscribers, and 513 million Internet users to date.
However, the other side of China involves censorship and stifling of online freedoms. China is among those jurisdictions where you can get jailed, fined or imprisoned for retweeting activist messages. The infamous Great Firewall of China also blocks out content potentially critical of government, to the extent that Chinese ISPs have blocked Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and other similar services altogether, for fear that user-generated content might be critical of government, or could spark dissent.
Online Accountability in Microblogging Services
Chinese authorities are now on a test-run of its real-name regulations, which is among 16 regulations being imposed on microblogging services. With the system, the country's 250 million microblog users will need to verify and link their accounts with the country's national ID system. Wang Chen, head of the China State Council Information Office is confident that this will encourage accountability among users. "Microblogs, on the one hand, can reflect the public's sentiment," he says. "They can also create accountability, and promote the society's development."
The real-name microblogging registration system was initially implemented on a trial basis among users in five major cities -- Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shenzen -- as early as 2011. But starting this year, users of popular Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo services will be given a three-month window with which to verify their identities. With these timetables, it's likely that Chinese authorities will implement the regulation in full by March this year.
Will Real Names Lead to a Decline in Weibos?
Chinese microbloggers can still use nicknames and pseudonyms. The real-name system does not actually require users to display their real names on their microblogging profiles, like what Google+ and Facebook require. However, the service provider will store national ID data alongside a user's account. This way, users are held accountable for anything they post or weibo (the Chinese verb equivalent for "tweet"), which can be a bane for journalists, activists, or other users who might get into the sights of authorities for inappropriate microblogging.
Analysts have predicted a decline in social media and microblogging service use in China. Investor and entrepreneur Bill Bishop tweets that he expects a "60-80% decline in real weibo user #s." But even with the impending implementation of the real-name policy, Sina Weibo seems to have broken Twitter's load record, at 32,312 messages per second during the Lunar New Year celebrations, with 481,207 weibos being sent in the first minute of the year (in contrast, Twitter's record is 25,088 tweets per second to date).
There is the question whether microblogging services really have the potential to spread unrest and dissidence. Chinese authorities have cited the 2011 London riots as one example of the negative side of social media -- particularly how these modes of communication can help spark violence among the populace. "During the London riots, certain young people and rioters used social networking sites and BlackBerry smartphones to incite violence and coordinate looting," writes Li Liyan of the People's Daily.
With the real-name policy, China hopes to minimize the negative effects of online anonymity. With accountability, citizens will therefore act (and post) with caution, knowing they will be held responsible for whatever they say. The real-name requirement is not such a bad thing at all, Julia Q. Zhu reasons in a guest post at Penn-Olson. The system can even encourage Chinese netizens to "freely express their opinions and criticisms about society and under the government's supervision, it may demonstrate their commitment to free speech online and help foster a sense of social responsibility among their fellow netizens."
The real name requirement can also reduce so-called "zombie" accounts that marketers use to campaign for clients. The use of fake "follower" accounts has created a huge spam problem, and is deemed deceptive.
Most Chinese users seem to agree, with half of surveyed users saying they will continue to weibo even with the new regulations, and only a quarter saying they will cease micro-blogging.
In the End ...
There are valid points to both arguments. Real-name registration can be stifling to freedom of speech. But in this region where the Great Firewall prevails, it's probably better to have some level of accountability, rather than have the government ban microblogging services in their entirety. It's a tradeoff that would have to stand for now.