A user contract for Chinese microbloggers

Introducing regulations, points, and punishments

On Monday, May 28, after a three week trial phase, Chinese microblog service Sina Weibo formally introduced a user contract for its 300 million registered users. The trial began on May 8 as Sina quietly published a trio of documents outlining rules regulating user conduct and punishments for noncompliance—the Sina Weibo Community Pact (Trial), the Sina Weibo Community Management Regulations (Trial), and the Sina Weibo Community Committee System (Trial). As summarized by China Copyright and Media, the documents “distinguish between three sorts of prohibited content: harmful information, false information and user-dispute type content. The first category is dealt with by Sina itself, and two sorts of community committees corresponding to the latter two categories.”

The main part of the contract, the Community Pact, contains five sections and 31 articles, largely filled with legalese and standard clause. Articles 13 and 14 have gained the most attention for their vague restrictions on “untrue” content that “disrupts social order” and “endangers national security.”

According to an English translation, Articles 13 and 14 read as follows:

Article 13: Users have the right to publish information, but may not publish information with the following content:
(1) opposing the basic principles determined in the Constitution;
(2) violating national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity;
(3) divulging State secrets, endangering national security or harming national honour and interest;
(4) inciting ethnic hatred or ethnic distribution, destroying ethnic unity, or violating ethic customs or habits;
(5) propagating superstition or heresy;
(6) propagating rumours, disordering social order, destroying social stability
(7) propagating obscenity, gambling, violence or instigating crimes;
(8) inciting illegal gatherings, associations, demonstrations, marches, assembling crowds to disrupt public order;
(9) other content prohibited by laws, administrative regulations and State provisions

Article 14: Users shall not publish false information. For details on the scope of false information, see the “Sina Weibo Community Management Regulations (Trial)”.

For comparison, the Twitter content rules are available here. Although Twitter’s terms contain a blanket provision prohibiting content “for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities,” on the whole it is far more narrow than Sina’s content restrictions

Along with the new Community Pact, Sina has devised a “user credit” points system for Weibo users, as described in the Community Management Regulations. Accounts will start with 80 points, and those who post contract-violating messages (such as “spreading falsehoods”) will have points deducted from their score—the more followers, the more points deducted. Accounts with fewer than 60 points will be warned and tagged “Low Credit.” Good behavior (two months with no violations) brings a user’s points back up to 80. Accounts with zero points will be canceled. Finally, those users who provide national ID numbers and link to a cell phone account can gain points (up to 100). By tying points to the amount of data a user discloses, Sina hopes to encourage users to comply with the government’s demand for real-name verification.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

This contract follows a rough period for Sina Weibo’s relationship with its government censors. In March, following a flurry of commentary about ousted politician Bo Xiliai, Sina Weibo (and similar service Tencent Weibo) suspended their comment functions at China’s direction for three days in order to “clean up rumors.” Then in April, Sina admitted that it had not fully complied with China’s real name registration requirement for Weibo users.

While Sina’s “rumor control team” already deletes sensitive messages and problematic accounts, this contract appears to be an effort to appease authorities through more stringent regulation. More regulation, however, means more staff. A week before the contract went into effect, Sina advertised the job of “monitoring editor,” emphasizing tasks related to “information safety”—what the Wall Street Journal calls ”common code in China for compliance with the wishes of propaganda authorities.” In addition to Sina staff (who will filter material “endangering” national security, junk advertising, and obscene content), two “community committees” of volunteer Sina subscribers will be charged with enforcing the contract’s rules. China Copyright and Media elaborates, “there will be two sorts of committees, a ‘normal committee’, which will deal with user disputes, and an ‘expert committee’ to handle issues relating to false information.”

Sina finds itself pulled between the growing popularity of a cutting-edge commercial product (one that allows and almost encourages a certain freedom of expression) and the Chinese government’s desire to regulate and contain that expression. Sina acknowledged in April that its noncompliance with Beijing’s microblog real name policy “exposes us to potentially severe punishment by the Chinese government”—punishment that could include total shutdown—and continued:

We believe successful implementation of user identity verification needs to be done over a long period of time to ensure a positive user experience. However, we may not be able to control the timing of such action, and, if the Chinese government enforces compliance in the near term, such action may severely reduce Weibo user traffic.

Slate articulates this two-sided dilemma:

Sina’s biggest fear seems to be not that users will complain about the limits placed upon their activity, but that that its failure to police the site itself will provoke the authorities to close it…. Constrained though it is, Weibo has become a boisterous national conversation. Stopping it at this point would both infuriate its users and deny the security services their best tool for gauging public opinion.

But what will change?

It remains to be seen how much the contract and points system will affect user behavior. While the contract warns that, “oblique expression or other methods to get around the aforementioned restrictions” will not be permitted, it is unclear that Sina’s censors will be any more likely to catch homonyms and other coded allusions for blocked phrases than they have been in the past. This is particularly true as the volume of Weibo users continues to explode.

Furthermore, a blogger for Tech in Asia opines:

Article 13 is a rehashing of Chinese laws that absolutely apply regardless of Sina policies, and Sina’s censors have already been shuttering accounts that spread “sensitive” content for some time. Putting out a user contract and points system, I suspect, is just adding visibility to a system that has been in place since weibo’s initial launch.

The new user contract may be only a new articulation of old laws, but Sina appears to be acting out of fear that there may be much stricter enforcement of these laws on the horizon.

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About the Author: Alex Meriwether

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