BEIJING — Officials announced new rules on Friday aimed at controlling the way Chinese Internet users post messages on social networking sites that have posed challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machinery.
For many users, the most striking of the new rules requires people using the sites, called microblogs, or weibo in Chinese, to register with their real names and biographical information. They will still be able to post under an alias, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.
Some analysts say the real-name registration could dampen some of the freewheeling conversations that take place online, and that sometimes result in a large number of users criticizing officials and government policy.
The rule on real-name registration had been expected for several months now by industry watchers, and Internet companies in China had already experimented in 2009 with some forms of this. It was the ninth of 17 new microblog regulations issued on Friday by Beijing government officials, who have been charged by central authorities with reining in the way microblogs are used.
The regulations also include a licensing requirement for companies that want to host microblogs and prohibitions on content, including posts aimed at “spreading rumors, disturbing social order, or undermining social stability.” But officials have long put pressure on microblog companies to self-censor, and the lists of limits on content is more an articulation of the boundaries already in place.
The regulation announced by the Beijing officials only apply to companies based in the capital, where several of the largest microblog platforms, including Sina and Sohu, are based.
One large rival, Tencent, is based in Shenzhen, a special economic zone in the south, and an editor there said Friday that the authorities had yet to issue any new regulations that would affect the company. But analysts expect that that city and others across China will soon put in place rules similar to the ones announced by Beijing.
“It’s just a further sign of the way things are going,” said Bill Bishop, an analyst and businessman based in Beijing who writes about the Internet industry on a blog, Digicha. Some Internet users, he added, might now ask themselves “why bother to say something? You never know.”
There were many comments of outrage on Friday from those posting on microblogs. “Society is going backwards,” wrote one user by the name of Cheng Yang. “Where is China’s path?”
Many prominent commentators and writers with influence over public opinion already post under their real names. For example, Pan Shiyi, a wealthy real estate developer who posts regularly, has more than seven million followers. He recently used his platform to advocate for stricter air pollution reports from the Beijing government.
"In fact, serious weibo users have already opted to use their real names out of their own interests,” said another editor at Tencent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about government policy.
Internet companies hosting microblogs have been told to comply with the new rules within three months. Sina and Tencent each have more than 200 million registered users; it is unclear how the companies will go about ensuring that each user has registered with real data.
But Mr. Bishop said the technology was already in place and had been used by one large Internet company, Baidu, when it ran its own version of a microblog, which no longer exists. The registration information that users enter online can be matched up against a police database, he said.
Leaders here have long discussed how to better control the Chinese Internet, which has about 485 million users, the most of any country. Most vexing for officials has been the speed with which information can spread on microblogs. This year, several incidents highlighted the reach of microblogs, including posts that ignited mass anger over both the Wenzhou high-speed train crash and the hit-and-run death of a two-year-old toddler, Yueyue.
China has for years blocked Twitter and Facebook, and officials here carefully monitored the rebellions this year in the Middle East to see how they were organized and what role social networking sites played.
But Chinese officials also see the microblogs as useful. The sites allow people to vent anger, and officials can track posts to see the direction of public opinion. More and more officials are also being encouraged to use microblogs for propaganda and to mold discussions. Talk within the party about controlling the Internet accelerated after a policy meeting of the party’s Central Committee in October that focused on culture and ideology.
In the announcement Friday, Beijing officials said microblogs should “actively spread the core values of the socialist system, disseminate socialist advanced culture, and build a socialist harmonious society.”
—Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing, and Shuo Feng contributed research.