China's version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, has warned its 340 million users they have until next Friday to verify their accounts using their real names.
The company posted an official announcement Friday with a deadline of September 15, but didn't state what would happen to accounts that weren't verified.
The service has been asking users for more than five years to register their real names – in much the same way Facebook attempts to gets its users to run accounts that match their real names – but the company never enforced the policy and even said it was not going to do so because the process was too time-consuming and caused a drop-off in users.
Weibo users are asked to connect their chat account to a mobile phone number, which already requires an additional level of registration.
Despite its history of lax enforcement, Weibo is likely to insist on the new measure, however, thanks to a significant step-up in the central government's efforts to control online content.
At the start of the year, the government said that there was an "urgent need for regulation norms," and started enforcing laws it has already passed restricting the use of VPNs.
In July, it began shutting down a number of popular VPN services – used by Chinese citizens to bypass the Great Firewall of China – by sending the companies that ran them compliance notices. Rather than agree to hand over all their user data to the authorities and block a state-mandated list of websites as part of their "licence," the companies simply closed up shop.
The government then "requested" that the country's three mobile operators block the use of VPN apps on their networks, and set a hard deadline of February 1 next year.
It then passed new rules to censor information that did not reflect "core socialist values" – which created an effective ban on discussing topics like drugs and homosexuality online. Previously, Chinese censorship was largely limited to political topics.
Then in July, the death of activist, political prisoner and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in an undisclosed hospital in north China revealed new censorship capabilities as the Chinese government deleted, in real time, images and cartoons featuring Liu Xiaobo and his wife.
The government also demonstrated that it was capable of applying sophisticated blocking rules depending on context and type of communication, and that it had direct access to companies' back-end systems because offending messages didn't even reach people's accounts.
Just a few days later, the Chinese authorities then started banning cultural content – including soap operas from Korea, animation from Japan, and pop music from the United States – because they originated from outside China and it had set a quota for Chinese and foreign content.
Finally, last month, China's cyberspace regulator issued a new rule that banned anonymous commenting online and ordered companies to keep logs of all chats for six months. It gave a deadline of one month for the rules to be in place.
All of this activity is thought to be in preparation for the Communist Party's Congress in October – an event it only holds every five years – where the party will unveil who its new leadership will be. The party is fearful that the event will spark resurgence in demands for democratic reform. ®