Chinese web firms delete more than 60,000 accounts as new rules loom

Wall Street Journal: (by Josh Chin)

Chinese Internet companies have deleted tens of thousands of user accounts as the country prepares to enforce new registration rules that will further cement government control over online discourse.

A total of more than 60,000 accounts across a number of Chinese Internet platforms were deleted in recent days, chiefly because of misleading or harmful usernames, the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement dated Thursday. Among them were accounts that masqueraded as government departments, carried commercial names such as “Come Shoot Guns” and “Buy License Plates,” spread terrorist information or sported erotic avatars.

Unverified accounts falsely claiming to represent state media were also shut down, the agency said, adding that it covered everything from microblogs to chat accounts to online discussion forums. Companies listed as having taken part in the cleanup included top U.S.-listed Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , Tencent Holdings Ltd. , SinaCorp. and Baidu Inc.

The comprehensive creation of a clear and bright Internet space requires active and positive conduct from enterprises,” the regulator’s statement said.

The new rules aim to further tame the country’s already tightly controlled Internet by prohibiting the use of deceitful or harmful identities and requiring Internet users to submit genuine personal information when registering for online services. They were announced earlier this month and go into effect March 1.

China has attempted to implement similar limits in the past, with mixed success. The current effort, however, arrives at a time of intense ideological and political tightening as Chinese President Xi Jinping moves to reassert Communist party dominance over public discourse, particularly online.

Venture capitalist and Chinese blogging pioneer Isaac Mao warned that requiring users to register with their personal information to use any Internet service would stifle expression and creativity online.

It definitely has a chilling effect,” Mr. Mao said. “In the long run, freedom of speech and freedom of innovation will be dramatically harmed.

Weibo Corp. ’s microblogging service deleted 5,500 accounts, according to the regulator’s statement. They included accounts that spread information related to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Tencent canceled instant messaging and other social media accounts related to gambling, firearms, fake invoices and fake food-safety information, the regulator said.

Neither company immediately responded to requests for comment.

Some analysts have warned that the new rules could make things challenging for Chinese Internet companies by increasing operational costs while reducing total user numbers.

Yet tighter registration might also improve the quality of their users, said Xiaofeng Wang, a senior analyst at Forrester.

Marketers and consumers have become more mature. They’re getting past the stage where they care only about the total number of users,” she said. “They’ve realized the important thing is the actual, active users.”

Baidu dismissed the idea that the deletions would have an impact on its business. The search giant removed more than 23,000 accounts from its popular PostBar, or Tieba, discussion forums, mostly for promoting “vulgar” culture or featuring erotic avatar images, the agency said.

It’s a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of Baidu PostBar accounts, which number in the hundreds of millions,” said Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo. He declined to comment further on what the company was doing to comply with the new requirements.

The regulator didn’t say whether Alibaba had deleted any accounts, but said the company had set up a special working group to manage usernames on its various platforms. Alibaba declined to comment.

Ms. Wang said further restrictions on speech could hurt the attractiveness of social media platforms, but said that companies were unlikely to resist. “With the Internet, you always have to obey certain rules if you want to operate a business in China,” she said.