On March 16, new real identity rules imposed on China’s microblogging platform Weibo went into effect; dubbed “Weibocalypse” by China’s internet community . The Provisions on Administration of Weiboke Development (the Provisions) include core provisions in Article 6, which requires pre approvals by the Beijing city authority before launching a Weibo account, and Article 9, which requires that a user provide his or her true identity. Chen Jihong, a Beijing-based partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm said that “overall, the Provisions regulate not only issues of approval and true identity, but also general issues including compliance with the law and privacy protection”.
As reported by Reuters on March 12, Weibo’s parent company, Sina Corp (Sina) estimated that by March 16, at least 60 percent of Weibo users would have registered their real identities. "We estimate that by the deadline, the majority of our users, about 60 percent of them, would have successfully registered their identities," Liu Qi, a Sina spokesman, said.
In December 2011, the Beijing city government issued the Provisions, giving microblog operators based in the city, which includes Sina, three months to ensure users register their real identities. Other major cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou are expected to adopt similar rules soon.
Users must link their mobile phone numbers to their Weibo account, and only those verified will be allowed to post messages. China has repeatedly criticised microblogs for spreading what it calls unfounded rumours. The country has blocked social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, citing the need to maintain social stability. “A part of internet users thinks this regulation will restrict free access to the blogging community, while another part thinks this regulation will reduce rumour-mongering and the spread of defamatory information,” said Chen.
China social media blog, Tea Leaf Nation, in an interview with online magazine Sampsonia Way said that many prominent writers, bloggers, journalists and academics were already tweeting on microblogs on a real name basis. “The new registration requirement probably would not affect what these people write, but it will likely decrease their readership and influence,” said David Wertime, co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. “Not only will ordinary people be limited to one account, if they’re registered with their legal name they will have to think twice about reposting content that might be seen as objectionable.”
Chen also believes the Provisions would significantly affect Weibo usage because, “it’s a great possibility that the government will closely monitor how things would develop after the Provisions come into force and evaluate its impact accordingly,” said Chen. However, he noted that this will take some time. Until there is sufficient monitoring and evaluation from the government, it is not likely that other rules of a similar nature regulating internet or other media will be issued.
Despite these fears the Provisions will hurt Weibo and discourage users, a Reuters report says there could be an upside for Sina’s bottom line: the rules are likely to make the microblogging platform more alluring to advertisers as the company attempts to generate revenue from the product later this year.
Analysts said the move was unlikely to cause a steep drop in user engagement and may actually see an uptick in advertiser interest, as the identity rules would weed out spam accounts and give Sina precious user information that could turn the platform into a money-spinning crown jewel. "It's not going to have a major impact on user engagement because there's nothing else that does what this platform does in real time," said Shanghai-based marketing consultant T.R. Harrington."From an advertising targeting perspective, Weibo has the potential to become much more valuable.” ALB
Candice Mak is North Asia Editor at ALB. Follow us on Twitter: @ALB_Magazine.