Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” started offering shares on NASDAQ last week. Its regulatory disclosures reveal a company’s balancing act between censoring too much and too little.
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By arrangement with ProPublica
Starting last week, investors can purchase shares of Weibo, sometimes called “China’s Twitter,” on NASDAQ. The company’s regulatory filing with the SEC reveals details not previously known about Weibo’s censorship apparatus, which we wrote about last year.
Weibo, like all Internet publishers and providers in China, is prohibited from letting their users display content that is obscene, fraudulent, defamatory or otherwise illegal under Chinese laws. The content prohibitions also forbid material that “impairs the national dignity of China,” “is reactionary,” “superstitious,” or “socially destabilizing.”
As required under SEC regulations, the company must list for investors potential risks that might affect its share price. Weibo is up front about the risk the Chinese government’s regulation of content poses to its ability so succeed. “Failure to [censor] may subject us to liabilities and penalties and may even result in the temporary blockage or complete shutdown of our online operations.”
In the regulatory filing, Weibo says it doubts it can censor its users adequately enough to satisfy the government.
Under a section titled “Risks Relating to Doing Business in China,” the company cites as a material risk not being able to censor user content quickly enough for the Chinese government, and describes a three-day period in March 2012 when Weibo disabled commenting completely so censors could “clean up” all content regarding a topic. The company did not disclose the topic but the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2012 that China put temporary restrictions on Sina, Weibo’s parent company, as well as Tencent, a rival microblogging service, and that it was “detaining individuals that it accused of spreading rumors of a coup attempt in Beijing.” That week, according to the Journal story, Sina and Tencent placed identical notices on their web sites, warning users that the ability to comment on posts was being shut down for three days.
In the regulatory filing, Weibo says it doubts it can censor its users adequately enough to satisfy the government. “Although we attempt to monitor the content posted by users on our platform, we are not able to effectively control or restrict content (including comments as well as pictures, videos and other multimedia content) generated or placed on our platform by our users.”
For Weibo, censorship that’s adequate for the government may alienate consumers. As Wired reported, after a government crackdown threatening to jail users who post “inaccurate” messages if it is viewed over 500 times, Weibo’s users started to leave the service. Censorship, according to Weibo’s filing, can “adversely affect our user experience and reduce users’ engagement and activities on our platform as well as adversely affect our ability to attract new users to our platform.”
Also new in Weibo’s filing is a sense of the scale of their operations. Little was previously known about how many human sensors Weibo employs, or how much it costs the company to maintain the staff and the technology to monitor the over 100 million posts its users create per day, though this has been the subject of much research. Weibo’s filing with the SEC claims they have a little more than 2,000 employees total, which is fewer than the number of censors alone researchers believe Weibo employs. That might mean the researchers’ estimates are wrong or that the censors are employed by a contractor.
A ProPublica investigation last year republished images deleted by censors on Sina Weibo, along with translations and explanations of the images themselves.
To see the most recent censored posts detected on Sina Weibo, visit freeweibo.com.
Read Weibo’s section on risk related to censorship below, or read the full regulatory disclosure.