China plans to require users of the country's Twitter-like microblogs to register with their real identities, and has already begun trials of the system in five cities, according to a Chinese official.
The real-name registration marks the latest attempt by Chinese authorities to tighten control over the country's social networking sites, which have also become forums for people to express opinions critical of the government. The country's microblogging sites have about 250 million users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.
China supports microblogs, said Wang Chen, the head of China's State Council Information Office. "Microblogs, on the one hand, can reflect the public's sentiment," he said. "They can also create accountability, and promote the society's development."
But China also wants to ensure the internet's "healthy development", Wang said. Although microblogs can reflect the people's will, they can also be used to spread harmful and irrational opinions and information. He pointed to pornography and the fabrication of rumors as major problems.
The real-name microblog registration began as trials in the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shenzhen from late last year. Once the pilot programmes are completed, they will then be expanded to other parts of the country, Wang said. He did not give a firm date, or state specifically where the real-name registration will be expanded to.
The new regulations could scare China's internet users from posting comments on microblogs, according to analysts. Chinese authorities have gone as far to detain microblog users accused of fabricating online rumors.
Beijing's city government announced last month it would also require users of microblogs to register with their real names. The text of the regulations states that users cannot post on topics that will damage China's national honour or lead to illegal gatherings that will disturb civil order.
"I think initially, some users will feel more cautious about what they post, or feel less inclined to post unless it is a topic they feel very strongly about," said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. "But over time, it will become normal and users will be less sensitive to it."
Chinese officials have yet to state how the new real-name requirements will be implemented. "In other real-name systems, it has often been discovered that it was very difficult to implement, or users found ways to circumvent them," Natkin said.
Wang said the regulation will first be enforced on new users of microblogs, and then extended to existing users. Users will still have the choice of selecting their own screen names to be displayed on their accounts.
China already censors the internet for anti-government content, and has blocked foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A spokesman for Sina, a Chinese company operating one of the country's largest Twitter-like microblogging sites, declined to comment on the plans to enforce real-name registration.