China’s social networking applications, blogging, and microblogging sites have wrestled with the country’s censorship laws since the outset of the social internet. Sina Weibo — the country’s version of Twitter — boasts about 600 million users, and recently penalized a total of over 100,000 member accounts on various charges including harassment, vulgarity, and other offenses that violated the country’s recently implemented seven baseline regulations for internet use, according to a Beijing source. Since China’s internet conference in August, Weibo has deemed these accounts in violation of the various rules, and raises the issue of how involved Chinese technology companies are going to be in the persecution of internet users.
This crackdown comes on the heels of Sina’s report that Weibo has seen an increase in 11.2% usership within the last quarter; its daily user count is now up to 60.2 million. So even as Weibo penalizes accounts, it maintains increases in registered users and revenues. If the network doesn’t have to worry about dissuading new users, what are the cons to complying with ambiguous regulations?
Competition could be one . Even with 600 million users, Weibo is far behind WeChat and QQ — social messaging applications that have amassed over 1 billion users and are second only to Facebook in the global scheme of social networks. It would appear as though it’s in Weibo’s best interest not to delete or suspend so many accounts in the wake of other apps’ popularity, but if its revenue continues to increase, it doesn’t have much to worry about.
This question reflects the global one of legislative uncertainty in the face of swiftly growing internet users. The International Telecommunications conference in December 2012 in Dubai highlighted the deep rift among the world’s nations as a global consensus on internet censorship was not reached, and as China and Russia faced off the U.S. and Europe in their different approaches towards how to regulate the web. As expected, the U.S. and Europe favor keeping the internet “open” whereas China and Russia sought tighter content control. (Of course, since then, the concept of the open internet has become a dubious one as the Snowden-revealed revelations about how broadly monitored internet user activity in the U.S. actually is.) But over the years, China has made its approach to web censorship quite plain with various jailings of internet users who were caught making political jokes or issuing government-deemed slander on various blog platforms.
Even foreign apps are setting censorship parameters on their Chinese networks; Line — the Japanese messaging app — reportedly implemented algorithms to censor politically charged words communicated over its network. For China’s internet companies and users, the rules and regulations on what is free speech on the web will be an ongoing quandary.