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China's 'Twitter' introduces contracts to curb rumors

Beijing has moved to stem a tide of online criticism by tightening its grip on China's hugely popular microblogs.

Story highlights

  •  Sina Weibo's "user contracts" are due to come into effect on May 28
  • They aim to stop users from publishing content that spreads rumors, disrupts social order
  • Chinese authorities putting pressure on social networks to manage what users are saying
  • Weibo and other micro-blogging platforms like Tencent's QQ have seen explosive growth in recent years

The hugely popular Chinese micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, is set to introduce new rules on what topics users can and cannot post, as the country's social networks face increasing pressure to crack down on online rumors. 

 A "user contract," due to come into effect on May 28, aims to stop users of the Twitter-like service from publishing content that "spreads rumors, disrupts social order, or destroys social stability." Weibo posted the document on its website and it was translated into English by financial publication Caijing and other Internet users.

It also states that users should not use "oblique expressions" to get around the restrictions.

To evade censors, Chinese web users often use similar sounding characters, nicknames or other shorthand to refer to controversial people or events.

For example, the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai was often referred to as BXL.

Daring to speak out about Bo Xilai thriller

    Other banned content includes revealing national secrets, threatening the honor of the nation, or promoting illicit behavior such as gambling.

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    Users who don't comply with the new rules could see their posts blocked or their account shut down.

    Weibo and other micro-blogging platforms like Tencent's QQ have seen explosive growth in recent years and have become an important source of information for many Chinese. Weibo has more than 200 million users.

    But the authorities have put increasing pressure on these services to manage what their users are saying, prompting a pledge last year from Sina CEO Charles Chao to curb irresponsible rumors.

    "Weibo is a microcosm of a big society and a society needs to be properly managed by regulations," he said during a speech at the China Digital Media Summit.

    Social media to curb 'rumors' in China

    Doug Young, a Chinese media expert from Fudan University in Shanghai, said the steps are intended to ease Beijing's concerns about the "rumor mongering" that takes place on social networks.

    "I think Sina are trying to be proactive and clean up the site and show the government they are taking steps to stop people from spreading false information or other posts that create trouble," he said.

    "It's unclear how it will be implemented. If they do want to kiss up to Beijing, they could target posts related to internal politics," he added.

     A committee made up of users and experts will be tasked with enforcing the new contract.

    Sina also outlined a points ratings system, whereby users who don't adhere to the terms and conditions will have points deducted from a credit score.

    In April, China's Internet regulator temporarily suspended the comments sections of Weibo and Tencent's QQ as a punishment for allowing rumors to spread.

    China cracks down on websites

    Authorities also closed 16 websites and detained six people for allegedly spreading rumors of "military vehicles entering Beijing" shortly after the arrest of Bo when China's Internet was rife with talk of an alleged coup.

    In December last year, Beijing announced that all microbloggers would be required to disclose their real names. But only 60% of Weibo's users had complied by a March deadline, according to local news reports.

    Popular non-Chinese services, Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in China.