Chinese expected to brush off real name registration for Twitter-like sites

Beijing has given a March deadline for all microblog websites to require users to register with their real name identities

By March 16, users of China's Twitter-like microblogging sites will be required to register with their real names in a government effort to stop harmful information from spreading on social media sites. But to Beijing resident Cao Hong, it's clear what authorities' real intentions are.

"I feel the government is doing this to monitor the people," he said in an interview. "This will restrict people's free speech."

But as unpopular as it maybe, China's new regulation to control its Twitter-like social networking services won't be enough to drive off Cao. If required, he plans to register with his real name on the sites. "I won't leave them, because I need to communicate with others," he said.

Analysts also expect the same: Although not everyone supports the real name registration requirement, China's Twitter-like services will still remain popular and continue to grow.

"Over the long-term, there's very little likelihood that the new regulations will disrupt this market," said Dong Xu, an analyst with Beijing-based Analysys International. "The features and products the sites are offering will attract users."

The new regulations, which were announced by Beijing's city government in December, come as authorities try to control the influence of Twitter-like sites, which have often become forums to criticize the government.

Once the new regulations take effect, users will need to register with their real identities in order to publish posts. Users, however, can still choose their screen name, or decide to opt out of the real name registration and instead only be allowed to browse on the site.

While authorities have said the new regulations are meant to ensure the Internet's "healthy development," the rules also state users cannot post on topics that will disrupt civil order or incite illegal gatherings. Last year, Chinese authorities detained Internet users for fabricating online rumors.

"A lot of people believe if you have a real name system, the government will be able track you down and throw you in jail," said Michael Clendenin, managing director at research firm RedTech Advisors. "But in reality, most of the users on the weibo (Twitter-like) systems are simply there for entertainment purposes."

"There are very few people who look beyond and say 'Free Tibet' or 'Independent Taiwan'," he added. "If you register for this system, it's not like having your real name be broadcasted out there. You can use whatever kind of handle you choose."

At the same time, many Chinese users are accustomed to an Internet already strictly censored by authorities. Domestic sites often quickly delete content or prevent searches on anti-government topics, while popular foreign sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked from access.

One Internet user whose surname is Mo, said in an interview he disagreed with the new real name regulations, but added, "I can't say I won't use my account. I just think it's wrong. If other relevant government departments decide to do the same, I can only say that this is China."

Another user of China's Twitter-like services, whose surname is Gao, said many people were to used to having a level of anonymity on the site. Gao himself, however, doesn't plan to leave Sina Weibo. "Why would I leave my microblog? If I leave, where will I go?"

"Will these regulations affect my freedom of speech? We never had any to begin with," he added.

One of China's largest Twitter-like services is run by local company Sina. Despite the December announcement of the regulations, user growth on Sina's Twitter-like platform has continued to increase, said company spokesman Liu Qi, without providing exact figures.

Sina is still talking with authorities to fully understand Beijing's regulations, but the company expects user growth will continue even with the real-name registration system implemented, Liu said.

But while Sina expects users to remain attracted to its service, Chinese Internet user Liu Zhidi, however, won't be among them.

"Of course I'm going to stop using it," she said in an interview. "Microblogs should allow users to speak freely. Why must there be a real-name system? There's no need for it."

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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