If Facebook is still considering entering China, it needs to look closely at the country’s proposed new Internet rules. Yesterday, the State Council Information Office posted a draft update of its Internet guidelines that will make it harder for social media users to remain anonymous and even easier for the government to clamp down on behavior that it deems unacceptable.
The updated document defines microblogs such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo as Internet service providers and requires their parent companies to hold a licence to run the services. The proposed changes would also mean forum and blog users would have to register with their real names. A similar requirement was added to the guidelines in December for Weibo users but so far has proven ineffective. It caused a fuss at the time but Sina, for one, has dragged its feet on implementing the changes without getting into trouble.
As the blog Tea Leaf Nation points out, what matters most in this case is the message behind the impending law change. Chinese authorities already control the Internet as they see fit, blocking sites that breach sensitive subjects and assigning criminal liability to any service providers that facilitate speech that fits into any of nine categories of “harmful information”. The government, however, is now making it loud and clear that the social media services operate only because it lets them.
The draft law also grants the government more power of oversight, adding more forms, approvals, and registrations, and demanding that sites keep as many as 12 months’ worth of their activity available for inspection. The current law only requires 60 days’ worth. And the new preamble, Tea Leaf Nation notes, lists “protecting national safety and public interest” as one of its objectives. It would also clamp down on speech that “incites illegal gatherings”.
Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent consultant and author of the Sinocism blog and newsletter, says the changes are not surprising. “People have been expecting some sort of a licensing process for Weibo since last summer,” he says. That was around the time the Chinese authorities started their campaign against online rumors. “The real issue is going to be if the government is serious about real name registration.” To date, the government’s moves to enforce real name registration have amounted to empty talk.
If online anonymity on microblogging is truly for the history books, then we’re likely to get a clearer picture of just how many users are active on the Weibos. Today, both Sina and Tencent claim somewhere in the order of 300 million registered users for their microblogging services. Those figures are inflated by fake accounts, spam, zombies, and other garbage, says Bishop. “If real name registration is implemented, you’re going to see the actual size of the microblogging universe is going to be a lot smaller than what’s been in the press.”
Meanwhile, Bishop says that while many citizens use Weibos to bitch about the government, people who try to use the services to organize protest or dissent are “effectively suicidal”. Anyone paying attention knows there’s no such thing as anonymity on the services, he says. “If you think you can go on Sina Weibo and say something and they’re not going to find you, you’re stupid. Especially if you’re using a mobile device.”
Bishop, who co-founded CBS Marketwatch before going on to start his own gaming studio in Beijing, also has a message for Facebook: Don’t get your hopes up for China. “Given the current political environment, the likelihood of a Facebook deal being approved, even if it’s with a local Chinese partner, is extremely low.”
These new rules will only further complicate any China ambitions the Mandarin-speaking Mark Zuckerberg may have.
Update: For further reading on just how unlikely it is that we will see Facebook in the Middle Kingdown any time soon, see Chinese Internet-watcher William Moss’s informed take, written on the heels of Zuckerberg’s March visit to Shanghai.
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