China tightens Internet controls, real-name system to expand

China has been stepping up efforts to control the influence of Twitter-like microblogging sites

China on Thursday unveiled a draft of new Internet regulations that, if finalized, will force the nation's Twitter-like social networking platforms, along with all the blogs and online forums to require users to register with their official IDs.

The system had until now been only partially enforced on the larger online microblogging sites, also known in Chinese as weibo.

But while authorities state the proposed rule will help fight illegal activities, the expansion of the real-name requirement is intended to remind the country's Internet users to be mindful of what they post online, according to analysts.

"It makes everyone, who might post something controversial, think more carefully about it," said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

China already strictly censors online content, often by deleting Internet posts or blocking sites for anti-government information. In some cases, authorities have gone as far as to detain Chinese citizens for spreading alleged rumors.

Despite the strict censorship, China's Twitter-like microblogging sites have still thrived as forums to voice controversial opinions and expose sensitive news. The country's two largest microblogging sites, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, both have more than 300 million registered users.

Thursday's new regulations come after Chinese authorities in December started to hold trials of real-name systems in five cities with the country's Twitter-like microblogging sites. Those trials have served a "positive role" in fighting illegal activities, cleaning up the Internet environment, and in building an honest society, authorities said in an explanation of the proposed rules.

In the case of Beijing, a city government policy announced in December dictates that microblogging platforms must require their users to register with an official ID in order for them to publish posts. Users, who do not register, get read-only rights.

The expansion of the real-name system means that more microblogging sites will have to bear the cost of verifying user IDs, Natkin said. Thursday's proposed rules also make the sites more liable for controlling the content posted, he added.

"I imagine this will make it difficult for the smaller players to remain in compliance," he said. "You should see a certain amount of consolidation in the market."

But enforcement of the real-name system is expected to take time and be difficult. For example, Sina Weibo was given until March 16 by Beijing authorities to verify all its users' ID information, or block unregistered accounts from publishing posts.

But in April, the site's operating company, Sina, said it failed to comply, and that a longer amount of time was necessary to fully implement the real-name system without harming the user experience. As of Friday, unverified users on Sina Weibo can still publish posts.

"We just don't know if this will be enforced," said Duncan Clark, chairman of consultancy firm BDA China. "I'm not sure that the government wants to be drastic. I think they want to hang this over the heads of the companies and use it to pressure them into compliance."

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