Reporters Without Borders condemns the new user conditions that took effect on the Sina Weibo microblogging website yesterday, under which users will be deducted points for violations such as spreading “false rumours” and will be suspended when they run out of points.
“Under government pressure, Sina Weibo has taken its cooperation with China’s Internet censors to another level,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This new system of control will tend to reinforce individual pressure on microbloggers, who are growing in number and creativity and who have been managing to circumvent the Electronic Great Wall and refer to sensitive subjects that the authorities want to suppress.”
“It remains to be seen whether or how this points system will be applied to the mass of information circulating on Sina Weibo. It may well be a lost cause but the company could be more interested in looking good in the government’s eyes. Sina Weibo will nonetheless have to keep an eye on the reaction of its users, who could be put off by the mounting restrictions and could turn to other microblogging platforms that are less zealous about content self-regulation.”
According to article 13 of the new user conditions, “spreading rumours,” “harming the unity of the nation,” “endangering national unity” and “disrupting social order” are all forbidden. Article 14 bans spreading false information. The use of coded expressions, abbreviations and homonyms – such as “bo” (tomato) and “xi” (stew) to allude to the newly purged leader Bo Xilai – is also prohibited.
“These restrictions are not new and are already in force for all Chinese Internet users, who are often subject to direct government censorship or indirect censorship through the self-regulation adopted by the various Internet companies,” Reporters Without Borders said. “On Weibo, accounts are often closed and posts deleted by site moderators. Sina Weibo even blocked the posting of comments for three days in April when the Bo Xilai affair was embarrassing the government.”
It is the point system that is novel. Each of Weibo’s 300 million users will assigned an initial 80 points, from which a specific number will be deducted for each violation. When users have been stripped of all their points, their Weibo accounts will be closed. Users who are the verge of running out of points will be able to recover some if they spend two months without committing a violation of if they perform some unspecified promotional activity, according to the New York Times.
According to the Caijing.com.cn website, a “community committee” consisting of regular Weibo users and “expert members” will be created to supervise implementation of the new rules.
With one of the world’s most sophisticated online censorship and surveillance systems, China is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet”. In March, it introduced a new regulation requiring microbloggers to register under their real names but most of the microblogging sites including Weibo have found it hard to enforce. Under the new user rules, revealing their real identity will be one of the ways for users to recover lost points.
The government has also forced microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, Sohu, NetEase, Hexun to hire moderators to monitor activity and “purge” problematic content. In 2010, they were told to appoint “self-discipline commissioners” to monitor and censor anything that could threaten China’s security and social stability, including content linked to illegal activities, pornography and violence, as well as baseless rumours and politically sensitive issues.