Let the hand-wringing begin. Sina has thrown up the trial version of a new user contract on Weibo, its Twitter-like microblog service, on May 8. The announcement was made via the official account of Weibo’s minder, the coyly named Little Secretary of Weibo (@微博小秘书), and attracted more than 30,000 comments in about 36 hours and attention from the WSJ. One user, @忘记密码1258, was unnerved by the new user contract: “What is this?? Speech control??? Then what is the reason for Weibo’s existence???”
Calm down. The new user contract will probably mean nothing for free speech and user behavior on Weibo, and here are the reasons:
5. This is the same term of use language on many Chinese Internet services.
Anyone who signs up for any social media service in China encounters shrink-wrap term of use provisions that contain similar language against the list of prohibited speech including “subversive language ” and “rumors.” See, for example, the language of Tianya Community’s User Agreement, which has been around a lot longer than Sina Weibo. It’s just par for the course.
4. Sina is just kicking the can down the road.
As Caijing Magazine notes dutifully, Sina introduced the new user contract “shortly after it admitted it hasn’t fully implemented rules requested by the government that require users to submit their identifications.” As we have stated before, Sina’s interest as a Nasdaq-listed company is not exactly aligned with the Chinese government. Sina wants active users, vocal users, users who attract other users. It admitted that it did not fully implement the real name registration requirements back in March, when hand-wringing about Weibocalypse filled the blogosphere (Tea Leaf Nation is guilty as charged). Instead, as Charlie Custer explained in Tech in Asia, it kicked the can to cell phone providers to authenticate the identity of many users. Why the foot-dragging? Because it did not really want to follow through. Now, to show the government it is doing something about curtailing “rumors,” Sina is kicking the can to users with the new user contract.
3. User behavior does not change based on these type of agreements. Ask Facebook or Google.
Let’s face it – who reads the 10-page mambo-jambo in term of use or user agreements of any Internet company, be it Facebook, Google, Apple or Sina? No one except the lawyers who drafted it. Certainly not the actual users who have a life (online) chatting with friends, posting pictures and commenting on the latest piece of sensational news (babies in capsules!!).
2. If real name registration did not change user behavior, a user contract will not either.
If there was a threat to free speech on Chinese social media, it was real name registration, which asked users to provide detailed personal information, including the national ID number unique to all Chinese citizens, to Sina. Having such information at the fingertips of Sina’s censors and the government would have been a tangible deterrent to voicing one’s true opinion on Weibo. However, as we analyzed previously, implementation of real name registration had not done much to dampen speech on Sina Weibo. We do not see a reason why a user contract can do better than real name registration in terms of changing behavior.
1. Sina already engages in very active censorship.
The new user contract lists the following grave consequences for violation — “Deletion of tweets, ban on retweets, ban on comments and tags. Ban on ability to send tweets, ban on ability of being followed and deletion of account.” Color us unimpressed. All of the above have been ongoing since Sina Weibo’s inception. What else is new again?