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China: Beijing microbloggers must use real names by March 16

A local government official has warned users of Chinese microblogging services—weibos—in Beijing that they must post under their real names no later than March 16 or be banned from the services. The move comes after the Chinese capital issued requirements late last year that weibos users re-register for micro-blogging services under their real names to enable authorities to more easily monitor and block them if they post material the government finds objectionable.

The deadline is the latest move in the Chinese government’s efforts to exert control over social media in the country. Although China has long run the world’s most elaborate Internet censorship regime, the system has largely focused on blocking access to particular sites and services the government believes to be harmful. Social media however—particularly the Twitter-like fast messages of weibos—has proven difficult for authorities to monitor: messages and postings are distributed too quickly for censors and monitors to keep up with in real time. Chinese authorities have derided the use of microblogging services to spread “rumors” and offensive material.

According to the Beijing official, users who do not register with their real names by March 16 will be banned from posting to social networks, but will still be able to read postings.

Authorities have attempted to exert control over weibos, having controversial posts removed from services as soon as they’re discovered. However, ordinary Chinese have taken to weibos as a way to express frustration over government corruption, spread news about accidents and disasters, and distribute information about current events and scandals. Thanks to posting and re-posting, the links, photos, and information distributed by weibos can often evade authorities’ efforts to block it almost indefinitely.

The Chinese government has grown increasingly wary of social media in the lead-up to a leadership transition in the Communist party this year, and is no doubt cognizant of the role services like Twitter and Facebook have played in the so-called “Arab spring” movements that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The issues of online identity also resonate in Western countries, with services like Facebook and Google+ routinely removing accounts that don’t correspond with a real-life identity.

[Image courtesy Norebbo / Shutterstock]