Tuesday, February 28, 2012

China micro-blogs may tank as new rules begin

Chinese micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are likely to lose a vast proportion of its user base are forced to register their real names or switch to read only services.

By March 16th, users on all of China's Twitter-like platforms will be required by law to register their real identities in order to publish posts on the sites. The new rules are already having an effect with Sina admitting many users had failed to register despite messages being sent to users.

Sina Weibo, one of the largest micro-blogging platforms in the country, reported on Tuesday that its total registered users had reached more than 300 million, with daily active users amounting to 27 million.

But with many of those who have followed through failing to pass the process Sina could lose a great number of users. Sina chief executive Charles Chao said more than 40% of new registered users for its Weibo site had failed verification screenings since the Beijing city government announced the new regulations in December. Of the users who have chosen to register with the real-name system, only about 60% actually succeeded in meeting the requirements, Chao added. The other 40% later dropped out of the registration process because the personal ID information provided did not match with state records.

Of particular concern is how the real-name policy affects foreign users. China would not necessarily have access to details of foreigners who have signed up to use such services and as such would be unable to verify their identity. Sina and Tencent ask for identity verification which includes "Certificate number", name and nationality. For Chinese citizens the "Certificate number" would be the number displayed on their national ID card. But for foreign citizens even those who honestly entered a passport number could not guarantee the successful creation of an account. What's more those who have already created an account could find themselves shut out [China Daily].

Even Sina's CEO acknowledges the new government regulations could have a significant impact. "If fully implemented in the near future, (the policy) will have a negative impact on user activities in the short-term," Chao said. "In a very dramatic scenario, (users) may not be able to speak, or to post messages, but hopefully that's not going to happen."

According to Chao about half of Sina's 27 million active daily users publish posts, while the other half mainly read posts. Since Beijing's new real-name registration policy was announced in December, Sina Weibo's active daily user growth has increased by 8% to 10%, but the March 16th deadline may curb any growth, and may in fact kill off many users.

"People are definitely not happy about this and I think the sentiment is that people will want to use the (micro-blogging services) less," says Bill Bishop, an independent analyst and user of Sina Weibo.

It is not just regulations connected with people's real names that will scare users away. New government rules over how users may use micro-blogs are set to make their use far more risky [Regulations Chinese].

"How are these regulations really going to be interpreted?" Bishop asks. "People are going to feel like, 'Why bother now?' It now raises the cost, and there's not a lot of upside for most people."

Indeed one Beijing resident and Sina Weibo user Qiu Yun, said she felt helpless and disappointed by the new regulations. "Weibo is our only window to find out the truth. From Weibo we can see things that the news broadcasts don't have and understand more about real events occurring," she laments. "Although there is fake information on the services, you can't give up eating for fear of choking," she added. "Why did they have to create these regulations? This is nothing more than the authorities in fear over the power of Weibo."

With more than half a billion Chinese now online, Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about the power of the Internet and its ability to influence public opinion in a country that maintains tight controls on its traditional media outlets.

Ordinary Chinese are increasingly using 'weibos' to vent their anger and frustration over official corruption, scandals and disasters, but analysts believe the new rules could curb online criticism of authorities.

It may also prove to be financially ruinous for companies like Sina and Tencent. Nasdaq-listed Sina said it swung to a net profit of $9.3 million in the final quarter of 2011, compared with a net loss of $100 million for the same period a year earlier. But many investors will be watching carefully at stock prices and profits in the wake of the changes that are a little over two weeks away [Reuters / NasdaqPC World / AFP]

tvnewswatch, London. UK

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