In China, real people vs. Internet minders

In the next three months, users of China’s microblog — “weibo” is the generic Chinese term for Twitter-like platforms — run by the huge (the English site is here) news portal, entertainment and blogging site, will have to start providing their real-world identities to the site, instead of simply being able to register. It seems likely the users of competitor (English here) will have to do the same, though the government hasn’t made that clear in recent announcements, dating back to December 16.

China’s initiative appears similar to South Korea requiring Internet users to provide ID numbers on Internet forums in 2004, which was expanded to cover all websites with 100,000 visitors per day in 2007. The South Korean policy has been frequently criticized and often evaded, and has led to collateral damage, such as hackers stealing a reported 35 million ID numbers in a break in.  Google’s YouTube refused to be part of the requirement (instead forbidding uploads from accounts whose country was set to South Korea), and the United Nations special rapporteur on free expression, Frank La Rue, has recommended it be abolished. The current Ministry of Public Administration has advised that the policy be abandoned.

Given the vast number of people online and the wide popularity of the microblogs, China’s tightening comes as no surprise: In October the government announced that stricter guidelines for social media sites were on the way. In November, as Sky Canaves reported from Hong Kong, authorities convened an unusual seminar in Beijing for senior executives of 39 major enterprises involved in Internet services, technology and telecommunications. Even though the official news agency Xinhua reported on the proceedings, it wasn’t clear what decisions had come out of the meeting. But as Canaves pointed out, “It’s likely that private Internet companies will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure their survival by helping to ensure the survival of the Communist Party.”

And it’s no surprise that the official People’s Daily supported the move — its Monday editorial, “Weibo regulations a step on the right path,” acknowledges the good and what it considers the bad of the situation:

Anonymity empowered weibo with the strength of public supervision, and the power could be overwhelming, especially for sensitive events. It’s the mainstream nature of weibo which has propelled social change. However, anonymity also resulted in widespread irresponsible remarks, and served as soil and air for rumors and encouraged fake online personas who manipulated Web opinions.

With more than more than 457 million users online, many of China’s Internet operations are huge and highly profitable. While high-speed access is widely available, the majority of China’s Internet users aren’t on fast broadband, they’re on mobile devices. Either way, the companies supplying the services are popular and profitable. Sites like the search engine and web portal match the revenues if not the capitalization of U.S. companies like Google.

And despite all the talk about the Great Firewall of China, the official policy has been to encourage the spread of the Internet — the government fully appreciates the economic value of a fully wired country. Monitoring the enormous flow of content has largely been handed over to the companies providing the services, with the implicit threat that if things get too far out of hand, the corporations will be held responsible and punished. With a greater concern for revenue than rights, most companies know they must comply with the government’s demands.

It is a mistake to underestimate the power of the Internet in China. Look into the story of protests in Wukan in south China’s Guangdong province. Villagers have been demonstrating against the highhanded seizure of farmland by village leaders and the suspicious death of a protest organizer who had been arrested by local police. Pictures of rallies regularly pop on and the village has become a focus for populist support. Internet access has been restricted, reporters have been ordered to leave, but cell phone pictures and video which make it to the Internet are keeping the outside world informed of what has been going on. After a week of protests, on Tuesday the government backed down and apparently offered concessions on the land grabs and the official’s death.  As CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher Madeline Earp has reported, grassroots reporting increasingly drives the agenda of traditional print and broadcast media in China.

With such dynamism and the economic importance of the Internet in China, it’s not just the December 16 announcements about real name registration that are so important, though they are undoubtedly intended to have a damping effect. We can expect more steps to come out of that November meeting in Beijing as the government races to stay ahead of what will soon be more than half a billion people online in China.