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Millions of China's tweeters 'silenced by real names decree'

State's new web rule will hit popular Sina Weibo

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Chinese micro-blogging phenomenon Sina Weibo has warned that new government rules mandating the use of real names on social networks could silence at least 40 per cent of the site’s punters.

The firm announced decent financials on Monday in line with analyst expectations, but dampened the mood by forecasting a poor start to 2012 thanks in part to the government’s increasingly hardline web laws.

After successful pilot trials in various cities, the government mandated that by 16 March all users of Twitter-like weibo sites in the country must have registered with their real names.

However, Sina chief executive Charles Chao said that since December only about 55 per cent of new registrants on his site have managed to pass the strict new verification process.

"We believe the requirement to convert existing users into verified users...will have a negative impact on user activity in the short term," he said on an earnings call earwigged by Reuters.

"These people will still be users, but in a very dramatic scenario, they will not be able to speak, meaning they won't be able to post messages."

Chao added that the firm, which has at least 250 million registered users, is still planning to invest heavily in the platform. The site recently revealed its intent to encourage more businesses to open accounts.

The government’s clampdown on Twitter-like sites remains a problem, however.

Such is the fear among Party officials of citizens speaking their mind on these real-time communications channels that the government has even sought to restrict journalists from reporting on any content originating from such sites unless it is strictly vetted for authenticity.

It claims the reason is to prevent the spread of “harmful rumours”, but more often that should be taken as a euphemism for anything which may challenge political and social norms.

Users have a right to feel reluctant to register with their real names on such sites too. Back in 2010 Amnesty appealed after a woman was sentenced to a year in a labour camp for “disturbing social order” though a satirical retweet.

More recently, two men were held for five days by police after being accused of spreading rumours on the web. ®

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