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Chinese government continues to tighten its grip on the Internet

The Chinese government yesterday revealed a draft of new Internet regulations that, if pushed through, will see huge swathes of the country's social networking and self-publishing sites subject to increased state monitoring.

Following the ‘success' of the real-name trials that have been taking place in major cities across the People's Republic - including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou - since December 2011, the state authorities are now proposing to expand the requirement to the rest of the country.

Users of blogs, online forums, and the country's immensely popular Weibo services - Twitter-like microblogging sites - may now be forced to register with the ruling Communist Party in person using their official ID cards if they want to engage with social networks. Web users who do no comply will be limited to read-only access.

Analysts say it is clear that the move by the government represents a reminder to Chinese netizens to be wary of posting content considered politically sensitive by the state.

"It makes everyone who might post something controversial think more carefully about it," says Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

Strict online censorship is already in place in China, with the government regularly deleting posts or blocking sites for propagating anti-regime sentiment, and it is not uncommon for citizens to be detained in relation to material circulated online. Western web giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are presently banned, and it is widely reported that China also state-sponsors hackers.

Microblogging sites will have to bear the cost of verifying their members' IDs, Natkin adds, which could lead to reduced competition in the country's social network market as smaller players may not be able to afford to fall in line.

Despite the government's persistent efforts to control the digital environment within its borders, China's social networking scene is thriving - the country's two largest Weibo sites, Sina Weibo and Tencent Teibo, have more than 300 million members. By way of contrast, Twitter has less than half that figure, lodging a figure of 140 million users back in March.

Some sites, including Sina Weibo, already operate internal regulatory codes: politically sensitive search terms are block and penalty systems are in place to block the accounts of users found to be spreading rumours.

To date, South Korea is the only democratic nation to have employed the real-name system.