Sina Weibo’s User Contract is Not a Big Deal


There’s been an awful lot of hubbub about Sina Weibo’s planned introduction of a user contract. The terms will reportedly be implemented on May 28, and are being interpreted as another “crackdown” on weibo freedom of speech. Specifically, much of the discussion concerns article 13, which reads like this (translation via TheNextWeb):

Article 13) Users have the right to publish information, but may not publish any information that:
1. Opposes the basic principles established by the constitution
2. Harms the unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of the nation
3. Reveals national secrets, endangers national security, or threatens the honor or interests of the nation
4. Incites ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, undermines ethnic unity, or harms ethnic traditions and customs
5. Promotes evil teachings and superstitions
6. Spreads rumors, disrupts social order, and destroys societal stability
7. Promotes illicit activity, gambling, violence, or calls for the committing of crimes
8. Calls for disruption of social order through illegal gatherings, formation of organizations, protests, demonstrations, mass gatherings, and assemblies
9. Has other content, which is forbidden by laws, administrative regulations, and national regulations

At face value, this certainly looks concerning, but it’s important to remember that this doesn’t actually change anything. Most of the language of this article comes directly from Chinese laws that are already in effect and already apply to Weibo users (just like they apply to everyone else in China). Even before the introduction of this code of conduct, weibo users have had their accounts closed — and in some cases have been held criminally liable — for violating these regulations. Sina putting them in writing looks repressive (and it is) but it’s worth remembering that Sina didn’t invent any of these conditions. They are pulled directly from Chinese law and are applicable to weibo posts regardless of whether Sina includes them in a user contract or not.

More concerning is the news that Sina will implement a points system and dock users who violate these principles. Users whose “credit” reaches zero will have their accounts canceled. That sucks, but again, let’s keep in mind that this was already happening; there are plenty of users who violated these rules over the past few years and found their accounts canceled (just ask Ai Weiwei) even though there was no points system in effect.

It’s not clear yet exactly how the points system will work, and it’s possible these restrictions will be used to close more accounts than would previously have been affected. But given how haphazardly Sina has implemented its real-name policies, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the points system has some gaping loopholes as well. It’s not in Sina’s interest to ban its own users, and the company will likely try to avoid doing that as much as it can. How successful it will be depends on the level of government intervention.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a fan of the points system or the user contract. Transparency is nice, but transparency about something repressive isn’t as great, and I don’t think this is really about transparency as much as it is about Sina looking like it’s doing something. Either way, my point is just that in practice, it’s not clear how anything on weibo will actually change as a result of this new contract. Article 13 is a rehashing of Chinese laws that absolutely apply regardless of Sina policies, and Sina’s censors have already been shuttering accounts that spread “sensitive” content for some time. Putting out a user contract and points system, I suspect, is just adding visibility to a system that has been in place since weibo’s initial launch.

In other words: does a punch hurt more if you see the fist coming?

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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