China is getting serious in its push for internet users to tie online identities to their real names, potentially making it easier for the government to track and censor internet users.
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Regulators have announced that by mid-March all users of the wildly popular social media site Sina Weibo must be registered with their real names.
Weibo, something of a Chinese version of Twitter, has become the go-to platform for people with rumors and opinions. The website fairly often outpaces China's news media on stories of corruption and other topics deemed "sensitive."
On Wednesday, the as-yet unconfirmed tale of a corruption-fighting cop possibly seeking asylum in the United States unfolded on Weibo, while newspapers and other media in China remained silent on the sticky topic.
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Amidst a continuing clampdown on criticism leading up to its change in power at the top, China's central government is now eyeing Weibo and onlines sites as targets. Facebook and Twitter are already blocked in China, the government's response to fears over social media stoking social unrest.
Now it has a Weibo problem and the risks of shutting of that service and ticking off more than 300 million users are potentially too great. Instead, regulators want users to register under their verified real names, which could cast a chill on free expression in a country where police have arrested and detained people over Twitter posts.
A Beijing-based internet regulator told the state-run Global Times newspaper that, in fact, the change was being welcomed by internet users.
"The real-name system is welcomed by service providers and has won support from the majority of web users. For the government, the move will promote social, economic and cultural development," the official reportedly said.
"For service providers, the real-name system will help build their credibility, and eliminate the spread of rumors and false information."
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