China's biggest microblogging site Sina Weibo has introduced a new code of conduct to encourage netizens to censor themselves. If users break the rules, they lose their account.
China's censors and Internet users have been playing cat and mouse for years. Each time the authorities introduce new rules to monitor cyberspace, resourceful netizens come up with creative ways of circumventing them.
China's social media sites are obliged to help the censors by automatically filtering content that could be considered subversive.
Sino Weibo, the People's Republic's biggest microblogging site, has just published a stringent code of conduct which clearly outlines what content is considered subversive. It stipulates that users cannot post information which goes against the principles of the constitution, cannot harm national unity, disclose state secrets or publish false information. Blogs are not allowed to spread rumors or information that could disrupt the social order, endanger the country's ethnic unity or jeopardize stability. Posts that call on users to protest or disseminate superstitious teachings are banned.
What counts as a rumor or what information might jeopardize the country's unity is subject to interpretation.
What is clear, however, is that any comment directed against the government can be interpreted as breaking the code of conduct.
"Basically these regulations are something they want to show the authorities," says journalist and blogger Michael Anti. "They want to show that the company is doing its censorship job. “But it's not a big move because the censorship on Sina Weibo is already very serious."
The site says it employs people and technology to filter information that is posted online 24 hours a day. Members are divided internally into two categories - "normal users" or "dangerous users."
However, this is apparently not enough for the censors. Last December, the government demanded that Sina Weibo introduce rules to ensure users register with their real names. This was supposed to happen by March, but in April the company told shareholders it had not managed to enforce the regulation. "Although we are supposed to do it, we have not been able to verify all our users' identities. The Chinese government could take strict measures."
Many users simply ignored Sina's call to register with real names. "It is difficult to censor millions of users," says blogger Isaac Mao. "The real name registration has failed already. They're starting to rethink their policy by replacing it with a new one. They want the community to censor itself."
To do this, Sina has introduced a point system. Each registered user - there are roughly 300 million - gets an account with 80 points that they can lose if they do not stick to the rules. The first warning comes when there are only 60 points left. The account is deleted if there are no more points at all.
However, if you behave for two months and don't do anything to draw negative attention from the censors, you can get a clean account again, with 80 points.
It is forbidden to talk about the 1989 massacre on Tiananmen Square
Chinese Internet users don't seem too fussed. "People don't care about these policies," says Isaac Mao. "They just laugh about it! That's the attitude among netizens towards political issues as well. They just laugh."
The netizens refuse to protest loudly, they simply get around the censor. For example, the 4th of June - the anniversary of Tiananmen Square - has become the 35th of May as this is not so easily recognized by the filters.
In any case, anyone determined enough to talk will manage to get through the Great Firewall of China and find Facebook or Twitter. The cat and mouse game goes on.
Author: Christoph Ricking / act
Editor: Gregg Benzow