Real Name Registration Requirement Coming For Weibo And Other Chinese Social Media?

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  • on August 26th, 2011

There is a rumor circulating that the authorities will soon require real name registration for users of Weibos (microblogs) and other social media in China. Such a regulation would be consistent with the ongoing campaign to control rumors on the Internet.

As part of the online gaming anti-fatigue system, China built a system to verify users’ real names at the time of registration. The Ministry of Public Security provides an API for companies to query the national ID database, but it is expensive; last I heard it costs 4-5 RMB per query. Baidu ($BIDU) required real names for its now shuttered microblogging service Shouba. 5 million or so people signed up, costing Baidu millions of RMB.

Users don’t like forced real name registration, and in a competitive market where Sina ($SINA) and Tencent Weibo do not require real names Baidu did not stand a chance.

The real name registration rumors have a couple of variants. One is that all users will have to have their names verified. That would likely result in a large drop of registered users and activity at Sina and Tencent and Facebook-clones like RenRen ($RENN), if the requirements do extend beyond microblogs. The second version is that unverified users will be allowed to use the social media services but will be restricted in their ability to send content. Either measure would likely mitigate the very real problem of online rumor-mongering.

Sina already has a voluntary real name system. Sina places a “V” next to the names of users it knows are real (celebrities, friends of employees for example) and has recently rolled out an even more stringent voluntary identification service that gives you a red star next to your name (see Techrice: DaRen – Sina Weibo Issues Red Stars to ‘Expert’ Users). Most Weibo users want to be verified; you have more credibility and Sina may promote your account.

Measures like the new rumor notifications (see Digicha: Sina Weibo Turns 2, Rolls Out New Anti-Rumor Measures) and a real name requirement may actually be good news for Sina and the other Weibo providers. Yes these are new regulations that users may not like, but they show that the government is not looking to shut these services down but rather implement enough control to allow them to stay online.

Liu Qi, Beijing’s Party Secretary and member of the Politburo, made a high profile, widely reported visit to Sina last weekend. The conclusion of some Western analysts is that his visit was a warning to Sina and a bad omen for the future of Weibo. In fact, Liu’s visit is probably a positive sign for Sina. It is rare for a Politburo member to visit a privately owned company, and the timing of Liu’s visit, during increasing calls for cleaning up the Internet and controlling rumor mongering, looks to be a signal that while Sina may be forced to add new controls, it does in fact enjoy high level support and is not likely to face draconian new regulations or closure. Senior Chinese leaders do not often publicly visit private enterprises, and when they do it is highly unlikely that they intend to burn the firm soon after high profile media coverage of such a visit.

Microblogs are embedded in Chinese society and it is very difficult now for the government to shut them down (see Digicha: Three Reasons The Government Is Unlikely To Shutdown Sina Weibo). Yes the government is reining them in, but the rumored measures are not enough to kill the vitality of microblogging in China, and in fact may be encouraging signs that government recognizes Weibos are here to stay.

Then again, this all may just be another crazy online rumor…

[UPDATE: Moves to tighten control over the Internet, and especially social media sites like microblogs, should come as no surprise to readers of Digicha. See The Rise of China’s Cybercrats from March 2011. END UPDATE]

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