China’s top microblog services, such as Sina Weibo, are just two days away from enacting new ‘real name’ regulations that will effectively block users from tweeting/posting if they haven’t submitted their name and ID number to the web company. And so Sina Weibo is pushing a more simplified way of just linking one’s Weibo account to one’s phone, using SMS, without specifically typing out your name and ID number.
But since Chinese phone SIM cards should, legally, only be sold when accompanied by your name and ID, it’s likely that the SMS verification method now on Sina Weibo will make a database check. That can be cheated, though; more on that later.
Sina (NASDAQ:SINA) has put up a special ‘real name’ page (pictured up top) for this registration as the deadline looms. The lady in the image is holding a sign saying “Get the weibo identification badge. We are all reliable people!” It makes no mention of this being a new legal requirement on Chinese microblogs. The page has two main options – note the green buttons – for an SMS-based verification, or a manual input of your details. The phone-based method is of course faster, and I was able to do the whole thing in literally less than a minute by just sending a code to the Sina mobile number. Not being a Chinese national was clearly no problem with this method. Others have reported that the manual input will fail for foreigners (as pictured here) as it will only accept Chinese text in the website’s name entry box.
After linking my Weibo account to my phone, I was given a virtual badge (pictured above) that could be retweeted.
We then experimented using a very old SIM card belonging to my colleague that was bought before the SIM card real ID law was put into force back in 2010, and so was not linked to a real name. And, lo and behold, Sina Weibo rejected the number with a stony silence and no confirmation SMS. So it seems that Sina Weibo is indeed doing a national database check. My own new SIM card, in contrast, is linked to my name and passport number.
Of course, this simpler SMS verification method is not infallible, and could be cheated by purchasing a SIM card using fake ID credentials. That way, Sina would have a name on file, but it would not be that person’s real name. We didn’t attempt to do so, but it’s certainly something that could be done.
The Sina Weibo ‘real name’ homepage features a counter showing how many people have registered their real identities in this way. It currently stands at 18.69 million, and is rising at the rate of about 20,000 people per hour. It’s not clear precisely what that tally is counting. Being such a low number – compared to the 250 million registered on Sina Weibo – it’s presumably limited only to those who’ve taken advantage of this new page, and not people who have submitted their real IDs earlier in some other way. Also note that new users have been signing-up with their real names since January 1st, so this affects only current users who’ll need to submit the info or else face being blocked from posting later this week.
Previously, Sina’s Liu Qi told Reuters that the company reckons some 60 percent of users of its Weibo service will have registered their real identities by the deadline, but no concrete numbers on the conversion progress were given. To be frank, that sounds very optimistic given the number of inactive users – and zombies and microblog spammers – that are inherent in such a social network.
China’s four major microblogs, then, are facing being cut down to size, and user numbers to be revealed later this year will show us precisely how drastic the loss of users was. Less than half, perhaps? Sina Weibo’s SMS verification method shows us that the microblogs desperately need to make it as easy as possible – even if that means the system can be cheated.