China's Top Twitter-like Site Sets up Penalty System to Stop Online Rumors

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One of China's most popular Twitter-like sites, Sina Weibo, announced a new penalty system to temporarily close and shut down the accounts of users found spreading untrue or harmful information.

The new rules announced on Tuesday are part of a larger government-backed effort to control sensitive political talk on the nation's microblogging platforms. Authorities have even detained users for allegedly fabricating online rumors, some of which occurred following the downfall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who has been linked to suspected corruption and the murder of a British businessman.

Sina Weibo already heavily regulates content on the site, blocking sensitive search terms and shutting down users accounts for the spreading of so-called rumors. The site defined new rules on Tuesday that will take effect for its more than 300 million registered users on May 28. The company is introducing the rules to explain how to use the service properly, said Sina spokesman Liu Qi on Wednesday. "This will help standardize what activities are appropriate," he added.

Under the new rules, harmful information can include spreading rumors, opposing the principles of the Chinese constitution, and inciting the illegal assembly of meetings or demonstrations. Users, who deliberately spread harmful information, will be blocked from posting for more than 48 hours, and could see their accounts closed.

In addition, the rules also penalize users for posting untrue information, which can include exaggerations when describing actual events, or posting an opinion along with the truth that is taken as fact.

In the most severe cases, where the untrue information has been re-posted 1,000 times, the users will be banned from posting content for 15 days, and be docked 10 credibility points from their account. A committee assembled from Sina Weibo users, who are experts in their field, will judge whether the content posted is untrue.

Sina Weibo is asking users for feedback on the new rules, which are still in their trial stages. Some users posted, stating that it was important for the site to fight against fraudulent activities. But others have complained that the rules violates user rights. "Freedom of speech is what the (Chinese) constitution says. Sina I think you need to have a group study on the constitution," wrote one user, with the screen name translated as troubled orphan.

The new rules were announced following Sina Weibo's ongoing implementation of a government required real-name system, where only verified users will be allowed to publish posts on the site. Last month, the site's operating company, Sina, issued a stock exchange filing that said the company could face severe punishment from the Chinese government because the site has yet to fully implement the real-name system.

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