According to a Xinhua report from late Friday evening, a spokesman from China's National Internet Information Office has announced that several internet companies, including Sina (NASDAQ:SINA - News) and Tencent (HKG:0700.HK - News), have been legally punished for permitting the spread of unfounded rumors. Specifically, the report cites unfounded rumors that were spreading like wildfire on Sina Weibo of an attempted coup d'etat happening in Beijing. [ Update: All comment viewing and posting is now banned. Scroll down for a screenshot].
It's not clear exactly how the companies were punished -- the report just says that they were "seriously criticized and punished accordingly" -- but the language is quite strong. The rumors are referred to as exerting an "evil influence" on society, and those who spread them are called "lawbreakers" who acted "maliciously" and "without reason." Xinhua is China's official state wire service, and these words were probably carefully chosen. The report ends with this sentence: "The two companies [Sina and Tencent] expressed that they would thoroughly implement the relevant regulations, take steps to reform themselves, and increase their supervision [of content]." That is very significant, especially if you're a weibo user. Earlier today, I wrote a piece about several different ways Sina's real-name regulations could be evaded, and it has certainly seemed to me like Sina hasn't been taking things very seriously. Tonight's Xinhua report, however, may foreshadow significant changes. We don't know what kind of punishment Sina or Tencent received, but it's clear Chinese regulators want them to shape up, and since those regulators have the power to shut them down permanently, it's hard to imagine they won't comply. Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo have grown into massive powerhouses, and even after the real-name rules went into effect (kinda), they still have impressive user numbers. But don't be fooled into thinking that would stop the government from shutting them off entirely to prevent the spread of rumors it sees as extremely harmful -- like, say, rumors of a failed coup during a time of leadership transition. People who suggest the government wouldn't shut down weibo because it's too popular may be forgetting that just a few years ago, the government turned off basically the entire internet in Xinjiang, a province with over twenty million inhabitants, for months after unrest occurred there. If they think weibo poses a real threat to social stability, they will not hesitate to pull the plug. But it will never come to that, because Sina and Tencent aren't stupid. They may have been playing fast-and-loose with the real name regulation rules so far, but they both understand that complying with regulators is the only way a company can do business in China. (Don't believe me? Ask Google.) So, if you're on weibo, expect to see significant changes in the months ahead (and maybe don't retweet those coup rumors unless you're interested in getting to know your local State Security agents a bit better). Real-name registration hasn't significantly impacted the discourse on Chinese microblogs yet, but I have the distinct feeling that the music is about to stop. UPDATE: Both Sina and Tencent Weibo have now suspended commenting services. Users can still post and retweet weibo messages, but attempting to comment on them results in an error message saying that the commenting feature of the site has been suspended until April 3. Reportedly, six people have also been arrested for the spread of the coup rumors. Here's what Weibo users now see in the comments area on the Weibo.com website (similarly with Tencent's t.qq.com): [Via Xinhua, h/t to @eobserver, image via Shutterstock]