China is expanding its campaign against online “rumours,” targeting online microblogging accounts. Most recently, China has unveiled plans to expand real name registration for microblogging services such as Sina and Tencent Weibo. Under the new system, Weibo users would be required to register their accounts with their real names and other personally identifying information. Currently, China is conducting a pilot version of the name registration policy in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzho, and Shenzen.
Chinese officials claim that the new system is designed to help crack down on “unfounded rumors and vulgarities,” but many netizens suspect it is simply an opportunity for further surveillance and censorship. Senior Chinese Information Office official Wang Chen, has stated that the name registration system responds to the requests of citizens who wish to preserve the health of China’s Internet development. But many users have expressed concerns that the new system, stripped of the safeguards of anonymity, will produce a chilling effect on speech critical of the government positions.
Microblogging services have proven to be a sore spot for Chinese officials looking to control online information flows. With the number of Chinese microblogging accounts having quadrupled in 2011, Weibo services have rocketed to the forefront of online tools for rapidly disseminating real-time information about current events and political opinion. The ability of users to instantaneously share and spread information while remaining anonymous has made microblogging services especially difficult to monitor and control.
Should the pilot programs be successful, it seems clear that the loss of online anonymity will have significant implications for the future use of Weibo platforms for sharing political dissent.