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China's real name registration rules for microbloggers: anything but Micky Mouse

Hogan Lovells TMT

27 September 2012
This blog post was provided by our Shanghai office

Rules enacted in March this year requiring users on China's hugely popular microblogging sites to register using their real names (so no more Mickey Mouses, Ronald McDonalds etc.) do not appear to have been rigorously implemented or enforced to date.  Sina Weibo, China's biggest microblog operator has publically admitted that it has not complied with the rules.  So have they failed?

Twitter has been banned in China since 2009, but China's own versions known as weibo (微博) with an estimated 400 million users have rapidly emerged as hugely popular and influential thought-forming media.  The rules ostensibly arose out of the Chinese government's increasing concern about the use of weibo to disseminate "harmful" or "false" information and rumours. The cover of anonymity was seen as facilitating such behaviour.

So what are we to make of the apparent failure to enforce the rules?  This is not new in China, where internet-related laws have often been hastily enacted as a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived issue without sufficient prior thought and without giving any guidance as to how they should be implemented.  The real names rules can be interpreted as symptomatic of Beijing's nervousness as it approaches the first power transition that will be exposed to scrutiny in the social media.

But to answer the question of whether the rules have been a success means looking beyond the question of whether they have resulted in a significant increase in real-name registrations.  In reality, even prior to the rules every microblog operator already knew that it should self-censor (and frequent calls and visits from China's cyber-sensors would have rammed the message home), and users were already acutely aware that whether using their real name or a pseudonym, based on past form, there never was a safe hiding-place within Chinese cyberspace anyway. 

So why was real name registration necessary?  China is trying to set up a system whereby the onus is placed firmly on operators to vet their own users and customers with heavy fines for (in particular) blog operators who fail to insist on individual registrations.  The net effect of the rules may not be a significant increase in real-name registrations, but will likely lead to more user and operator self-censorship such that microblogs ultimately become a less "free" forum, which may make their content less interesting and attractive to certain types of users. 

There is growing international consensus that free speech on microblogs has its limits and that censorship has its rightful place.  The right to free speech should not be used to harbour the insidious activities of internet trolls and cyber bullies.  However, outside of China, that debate has centred on the protection of the privacy and dignity of the individual from invasions by other individuals, whereas China's priority seems to be re-asserting State control over the individual.  The real significance of the rules is that on their face they provide an additional lever for the Chinese government to exert wide-ranging controls over microblogs at a sensitive time where the final arbiter of whether information is "harmful" or "false" will be the Chinese government and its army of online censors.  It remains to be seen whether the restrictions will be relaxed once China's new generation of leaders has been installed and the sensitive political transition period has passed.  It is perhaps, therefore, in Chinese cyberspace and in particular in the blogosphere where we will see the first indications of the new regime's policy on personal freedoms.

Hogan Lovells TMT

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