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Microblogs Have Become the Focus of Internet Censorship in China

November 26, 2012
Author’s self-portrait. Photo credit: Bei Feng.

By the beginning of 2009, the Chinese authorities had worked out a comprehensive content monitoring system for the Internet. It uses the Great Firewall to intercept “unhealthy” information (不良信息) from foreign websites, and inside China it uses direct censoring by government employees and indirect censoring by Internet service providers to control such information on domestic websites.1 In China, the contents of news websites, forums, and blogs on the Internet have completely come under control.

In keeping with Internet content monitoring, the authorities also took steps—in the form of a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Court—to deprive Internet users of any ability to defend their rights in accordance with the law. On July 13, 2009, the Supreme People’s Court issued a “Notice on Accepting and Investigating Internet Management-Related Cases.” It clearly stipulates that “cases involving Internet management shall not be accepted and no legal documents shall be issued.” The notice provides a clear explanation that the “cases involving Internet management” include “civil and administrative disputes arising from Internet management. Civil disputes are chiefly complaints by plaintiffs whose articles or opinions published on the Internet or webpages have been deleted by a website at the request of relevant government departments; disputes arising from plaintiffs’ blogs, forums, message boards, or websites being closed down; and litigation filed because a website has deleted articles or shut down a website without the consent of or without notifying the party involved. Administrative disputes include those cases where the plaintiffs refuse to accept the administrative punishment decisions or actions by the relevant management departments such as deleting a plaintiff’s articles and opinions on the Internet or closing down a plaintiff’s blog and website.”2

By 2009 several Twitter-like weibo—microblog—platforms such as fanfou.com and Tencent’s “Taotao” were already becoming increasingly active in China. They played an important role in disseminating information of the June 2009 Shishou riot in Hubei Province, and the “7-5” [July 5] riot in Xinjiang the same year. When government departments overseeing the Internet asked fanfou.com to remove “problematic” opinions regarding Xinjiang from its website, they discovered that the website basically has no control over its contents. Three days after the “7-5” incident, Twitter-like platforms in China such as“Fanfou.com” and “Jiwai.com,” were asked by the government to shut down. After this, foreign websites such as Twitter, Facebook and others could not be accessed from China.

Restricted content notice on Sina Weibo: “Sorry, we are unable to execute your request. This content violates ‘Sina Weibo’s Community Management Rules (Beta),’ or related policy statutes. If you need help, please contact customer service.” Accessed November, 2012.

In August 2009, Sina.com released a beta version of its Sina Weibo, becoming the first among web portals to offer a microblog service. After this, Netease, Sohu, and Tencent quickly rolled out their own microblog services. By the end of 2009, there were approximately five million Sina Weibo users, dozens of times more than the number of Chinese-language Twitter users at the time.3 The general industry view is that the Chinese authorities wanted to take advantage of the maturing content regulatory ability of the domestic Internet industry to implement an effective microblog regulatory system, thus using the controlled domestic microblog services to combat the uncontrolled, foreign Twitter service.

When Sina’s microblog service was first launched, a special information content filtering and monitoring department was established, which used a daily process of machine intelligence plus human efforts to manage and control the content of users’ microblog posts. Because of the integrated and open nature of microblogs and the rapid and extensive spread of information, and because microblogs could be disseminated through interfaces such as cell phones or other external APIs (application programming interfaces), it became much more difficult to monitor “unhealthy” information, and made the operation of microblog services a great deal more hazardous. In July 2010, among the microblogs of the four major Internet portals—Sina, Sohu, Netease, and Tencent—some switched to “beta [test]” status, some even shut down temporarily.4 The media reported that it was because the authorities learned that some extreme opinions appeared on some microblogs where sensitive words were not blocked, and demanded that the services be closed down and reorganized. Industry insiders said that this illustrated the authorities’ attitude: “I didn’t shut you down, but I can shut you down at any time.” At present, only Sina’s microblog service has removed its “beta [test]” label.5

After this, all platforms increased their investment in oversight. In September 2010, Sina formally hired 10 special self-discipline commissioners to oversee its website content.6 This system was promoted by the government and eventually implemented by all the big websites.7 But the number of microblog users rapidly skyrocketed. According to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) data, in the first half of 2011, the number of China’s microblog users increased from 63,110,000 to 195,000,000.8 A series of major public opinion and societal incidents were spawned and spread thanks to the microblog platform. These incidents included the following.

On December 25, 2010, the accidental death of Mr. Qian Yunhui, former head of the Zhaiqiao Village Committee in Leqing City, Zhejiang Province, triggered widespread speculations on the Internet. Many microblog-based citizen investigation groups hurried to the site to investigate. On February 20, 2011, China’s “Jasmine Revolution” erupted. The news spread widely on Twitter and microblogs. Hundreds of activists were detained, causing widespread denunciation by the international community. On June 20, 2011, a woman with the Sina microblog username “Guo Meimei baby”— [fraudulently] identifying herself as the General Manager of China’s Red Cross Business Operation—flaunted her wealth on her microblog. This led to continuous online questioning of state-run charitable organizations and resulted in a dwindling of public donations to nearly zero. On July 23, 2011, a major high-speed train accident on the Fuzhou-Wenzhou line killed 40 people. The questions, such as those regarding whether or not the search and rescue effort was terminated prematurely, the hasty burying of the derailed caboose engine, and the government’s control of media and the judiciary, etc., prompted many segments in the society to call into question the practices of China’s Railway Ministry. And on August 14, 2011, the citizen protest movement against a methylbenzene plant (the chemical industry acronym is PX) and its chemical pollution in Dalian, Liaoning Province, was entirely organized on microblogs. This event forced Sina to use, for the first time, local blocking measures to restrict all information originating from users in Dalian (a city of more than six million people).

Associate Professor Li Yonggang of Nanjing University School of Management stated in media interviews: “Microblogs, with its wide and open form of expression, expanded the space for speech for netizens, making regulators face new and even greater difficulties.”9 The series of Internet-based incidents created tremendous pressure for the authorities. During his inspection of Sina.com on August 22, Liu Qi, Beijing Municipal Party secretary, urged the responsible authorities to “ensure the truthfulness of information dissemination and resolutely put an end to false information.”10 On October 13, Wang Chen, deputy director of the CPC Central Propaganda Department and director of the State Internet Information Office said that he hoped that “the microblog website will strengthen the management of information distribution, so as not to provide a channel for the spread of rumors; those who fabricate facts and concoct lies and cause serious consequences after spreading them online must be harshly dealt with in accordance with the law.”11

As of August, 2012, Sina Weibo reports 368 million users.

Under the great pressure of the authorities’ multiple announcements, Mr. Cao Guowei, CEO of Sina.com said that “Sina’s microblog system is trying to set up more rumor-refuting mechanisms through all kinds of channels.”12 Chen Tong, Sina’s editor-in-chief, personally took charge of Sina’s microblog rumor-refuting team.13 Two days after Wang Chen gave his speech, Chen Tong said that Sina was setting up a microblog credit system in order to achieve the dual effect of self-discipline by users and supervision by others. This microblog credit system was officially implemented on May 28, 2012.14

However, the microblog operators’s self-disciplining system spawned “reincarnation party” groups. Those whose accounts were cancelled registered again (reincarnated) and continued to post. Xiao Han, associate professor at the China University of Politics and Law, “reincarnated” nearly 200 times on Sina.com. Another user by the name of “Repair” has reincarnated almost 400 times. Through mutual referral and connections with other Internet platforms, the “reincarnating party” bloggers can increase their “followers” to several hundred, even a thousand within a couple of days. Some “reincarnating party” members are also users of other platforms such as Twitter. They communicate sensitive events that happen “inside the firewall” to outside of the wall, and when the pressure of supervision weakens, they keep moving this information and other sensitive information back “inside the wall.” Some even pursued more extreme measures. What worries the authorities even more is that, with the inception of the free flow of information, certain rights movements have come into being. In September and October 2011, the “Free Guangcheng” movement spread extensively, and at the same time, Ai Weiwei’s effort to borrow money online [to pay for taxes that the authorities said he owed] also received wide response.

Under such pressure, the government stepped forward, introducing “microblog real name system” which it had been brewing for many years. On December 16, 2011, the “Certain Provisions on the Management of the Growth of Microbloggers in Beijing”15 (hereinafter “Provisions”), were issued by the Beijing Municipal People’s Government’s Information Office, Public Security Bureau, Post and Telecommunications Bureau, and Internet Information Office. The Provisions require all microblog users to, starting on March 16, 2012, register with their real identification information before they could start blogging. The Guangdong provincial authorities also confirmed that, in accordance with the central government’s plan, it would start, on December 22, 2011, microblog real name registration in the province, beginning with seven major Internet microblog services, including Tencent.16

Twitter user @mcxiaoke exposed some of the requirements the government imposed on microblog operators that were contained in an internal implementation notice on the “microblog real name registration system”:

Conduct item-by-item screening of messages sent by any microblog user with more than 100,000 followers, and implement the system of screening before publishing. Conduct item-by-item screening of messages sent by blacklisted users, and implement the system of screening before publishing. Delete within five minutes any information that is designated as unlawful and harmful;…

Open the technical interface to the public security agencies’ special-purpose search engine; activate blocking and screening measures of designated keywords within 10 minutes; be equipped with the “one-key delete” function for specific text, photo, and video links; be equipped with the function of controlling the forwarded comments by specific users or specific microblog information; be equipped with the function of controlling the release of information from specific areas, IP addresses, or sources….

Establish a 24/7 information patrol system; be equipped with the function of stopping the “publish all items” service; keep user registration information over long-term; keep user login information for one year; utilize the information on end-user software or cell phone record terminal identification and phone number string; provide public security agencies with daily information log in real time; establish with public security agencies assessment and filing system in advance.17

Screenshot of author’s Twitter page.

Beginning on January 1, 2012, Sina’s microblog registration process added a function to check identity information; only when the information checks out can the user begin blogging. But there were slight variations in implementing this new rule. Netease, Tencent, etc., required checking identity information, but on Sina’s microblog, in addition to checking identity information, text messaging was bundled with microblogging. Because mobile phones require real name registration, a real name registration system for microblogging was indirectly implemented. But some netizens used other people’s identify card information obtained through Internet searches—including the information of “The Father of the Great Firewall” Fang Binxing—to verify their own accounts. Operators were unable to determine whether the information provided by the user belonged to the actual user.

The authorities and Internet operators’ efforts could not improve their reactive position in information censorship. The forced implementation of the real name registration system did not reduce the volume of microblog traffic or user activity as seriously as previously predicted. The “reincarnation party” that stumped Sina and declared itself to be transparent to the police became even more active after being “rectified” many times. In February 2012, after Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun went into the United States Consulate in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province), information about “military vehicles entering the capital” and “an incident in Beijing”  and other news spread widely through microblogs. The regulatory authorities had no choice but to put even greater pressure on Internet operators.

On March 31, 2012, Sina microblog and Tencent microblog issued notices that they were shutting down their comments function from that morning until 8 a.m., April 3.18 At the same time, the State Internet Information Content Management Department shut down 16 websites for fabricating and circulating rumors, and harshly criticized Sina and Tencent’s microblog services as rumor mills.19 Many microblog users who spread such information were administratively—some even criminally—detained by the relevant authorities.20

The most paradoxical aspect of China’s Internet is that after an incident happens, there are multiple versions of it online. They are all labeled as rumors by the authorities before being verified by the authorities. But in general, the version that conforms most to netizens’ experience and knowledge will be disseminated most extensively, and this is often the version verified by the facts officially disclosed afterwards. In the process of information dissemination, netizens have no way to judge what is hearsay, rumor, or fact. This state of affairs also significantly discounted the effect of the authorities’ crack down on Internet rumors.

At the same time that microblog operators are facing increasing pressure from the government, they are also facing a backlash from users because of their increased supervision.

On May 28, 2012, Sina started to implement the microblogging credit system that it had been preparing for a long time. A microblog management system—composed of the “Sina Microblog Community Convention (Trial),” “Sina Microblog Community Management Regulations (Trial),” and “Sina Microblog Community Committee System (Trial)”—launched a user credit point system and a community committee consisting of users. Any acts clearly identified as having violated rules are to be dealt with by the website; disputed cases of “unhealthy” information reported by users are to be dealt with by the community committee.

According to the latest community management regulations, “dangerous information” (危害信息) is chiefly divided into three major categories: information that endangers the security of the state and society, junk advertisements (spam), and pornography. The information that endangers the security of the state and society is further divided into nine categories, including information that endangers national unity, represents leaks of state secrets, endangers state security, incites ethnic hatred, publicizes cults and superstition, spreads rumors, or incites illegal assemblies and demonstrations.

The new regulations also make clear that any user who posts a total of five or more sensitive items will be barred from posting for 48 hours and the contents will be deleted. Those who have “maliciously” posted sensitive content will be barred from posting for more than 48 hours and their accounts may be cancelled. The new regulations also introduce a credit points system. All users start with 80 points. Those who violate the rules will have points deducted. They can earn points for good behavior. Users whose points drop below a certain level may be restricted from posting or be criticized.

According to commentaries, quite a number of microblog users have long been unhappy about some of the measures Sina uses to censor its microblogs. Now that a microblog community committee composed of users has been set up to participate in the management of microblogs, the commentaries point out, it might help ease some of the dissatisfaction among microblog users.

According to the article “Sina Stresses Politics” published in Phoenix Weekly magazine in early 2012, Sina’s microblog system has developed many technological means to restrict sensitive information  from being transmitted. The article disclosed that users are categorized into different management levels—as “standard users, beginning users, sensitive users, high-ranking users, green users, blocked users, dangerous users, frozen users,” etc. Some sensitive users have three levels of filter controls on their Sina microblogs, including delayed display, sensitive double entendres filtering, and temporary segregation, which means that the user can see their own microblog but others are prevented from seeing or following it.21

According to sources, Sina’s microblog service now has formed a complete three-tier monitoring and control system. The first tier uses technological means to filter sensitive words. The second tier consists of workers’ reviewing new content and forms that have never appeared online and forwarding them to the third tier. Finally, at the third tier, workers develop summaries of the different kinds of incidents and formulate strategies for the front line, which are then returned to the first tier for workers to implement accordingly.22

In addition, Sina has a team of hundreds of people that can be mobilized at any moment. As soon as there is an emergency situation, these hundreds of people can be called into action to supervise. These people consist not only of workers in other Sina departments, but also monitors specially recruited by Sina to maintain self-discipline. They are “people who are passionate about maintaining stability and security on microblogs.” Outsiders estimate that Sina may already have more than 1,000 such monitors currently.23

While the profit model of microblogs is still unclear, investment in the effort to regulate microblog platforms is a heavy burden for those operating microblogs. In the risk analysis in its 2011 financial report to investors, the U.S.-listed company Sina.com stated that the Chinese government’s Internet oversight and news and information censorship could severely influence the operation of microblogs, possibly even leading to the termination of all microblogs.24

To reduce the risk of the whole platform being closed down, microblog operators have adopted and developed tactics to administer microblogs that are connected with government control. But the functioning of China’s Internet in the past decade-plus has shown that the Chinese government’s ability to supervise the Internet, on the one hand, and the sphere of expression on the Internet, on the other, are going in opposite directions and both are growing simultaneously. Scholar Ye Kuangzheng said in a media interview: “When the resistance from netizens grows stronger and more pronounced, and the government has no means to control it—it is difficult to say—the government could shut microblogs down. If it senses threat, it is capable of any action. For example if there is large-scale unrest in some area, it is very likely that Sina.com’s microblog service would be shut down.”

To block information or let it flow freely—this has long been a non-question for most of the world’s Internet regulators. But it still perplexes the overseers of China’s Internet.

Bei Feng (北风) is the online name of Wen Yunchao (温云超). He is an independent journalist currently living in Hong Kong and a well-known blogger in China. He is an observer of China’s new media, Internet censorship and social movements, and is engaged in human rights protection and democracy movements in China. He was awarded the 2010 Human Rights Prize of the French Republic.



Notes

1. See my previous essay, Bei Feng, “China’s Internet Censorship System,” China Rights Forum, 2010, no. 2, http://www.hrichina.org/crf/article/3244.^

2. “Notice on Accepting and Investigating Internet Management-Related Cases,” photocopy posted on Twitter by Bei Feng, http://twitter.com/wenyunchao/status/194791007534067712/photo/1/large.^

3. “Four Major Microblogs ‘Downgraded’ to Beta,” Dong Fang Daily, July 15, 2010, http://internet.ccw.com.cn/news/online_media/htm2010/20100715_875155.shtml.^

4. Ibid.^

5. “Sina Weibo Removes ‘Beta’ Classification—Faces Greater Future Risk,” itxinwen.com, August 29, 2012, Original article at http://mi.itxinwen.com/internet/2012/082/439069.html is no longer available. See reposting of article at http://tech.hexun.com/2012-08-29/145277273.html.^

6. “Beijing Establishes First Self-Discipline Specialists—Sina To Be the First Testing Site,” People’s Daily Online, September 10, 2010, http://www.fanren8.com/read-htm-tid-23030.html.^

7. “Commercial Websites Establish Nearly 200 Self-Discipline Specialists,” Xinhuanet, May 25, 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/local/2012-05/25/c_112039328.htm.^

8. “Statistical Report on Internet Development in China,” CNNIC, July 25, 2011, http://www.cnnic.net.cn/hlwfzyj/hlwxzbg/201107/P020120709345279403991.pdf.^

9.“Sina Stresses Politics,” Phoenix Weekly, March 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/WdcDaG.^

10. Ibid.^

11. “Wang Chen: Strengthen Famous Leading Bloggers,” Dong Fang Daily, October 14, 2011, http://www.dfdaily.com/html/33/2011/10/14/678716.shtml.^

12. “Sina Stresses Politics,” Phoenix Weekly, March 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/WdcDaG.^

13. Ibid.^

14. “Sina Weibo Implements Credit System,” Caixin.com, May 30, 2012, http://companies.caixin.com/2012-05-30/100395637.html.^

15. “Certain Provisions on the Management of the Growth of Microbloggers in Beijing,” Xinhuanet, December 16, 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2011-12/16/c_111249899.htm.^

16. “Guangdong Implements Real Name Weibo Registration Policy—Tencent Is on the List,” Caixin.com, December 22, 2011, http://policy.caixin.com/2011-12-22/100341273.html.^

17. “Requirements in the Notice on the Implementation of Weibo Real Real-Name Registration,” qiwenlu.blogspot, March 1, 2012, http://qiwenlu.blogspot.com/2012/03/blog-post_1469.html.^

18. “Tencent Weibo Disables Comment-Feature to Clean Up Rumors and Harmful, Illegal Posts,” yicai.com, March 31, 2012, http://www.yicai.com/news/2012/03/1584901.html.^

19. “16 Rumor Spreading Websites Closed,” Dong Fang Daily, March 31, 2012, http://www.dfdaily.com/html/33/2012/3/31/770094.shtml.^

20. “Weibo Reinstates Comment-Feature, Network Control Still Strong,” Deutsche Welle, April 3, 2012, http://bit.ly/WpnQmW.^

21. “Sina Stresses Politics,” Phoenix Weekly, March 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/WdcDaG.^

22. Ibid.^

23. Ibid.^

24. “Sina: Excessive Government Interference Could Bring an End to Microblogs,” dwnews.com, April 28, 2012, http://china.dwnews.com/news/2012-04-28/58720706-all.html.^

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