Beijing authorities Friday ordered Internet microblogs like Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, to require users to register with their real names, the AP reports. Microblog companies have three months to comply.

Weibo. (Nelson Ching/Bloomberg)

The move might be aimed at controlling the conversation on social networks in the country, which are growing by the day. At the end of June, China had more than 485 million Internet users, more than any country in the world. Weibo alone is used by more than 250 million people.

Although Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China, and sensitive reports on BBC and CNN are screened out, Weibo and other microblogs “seem to be one step ahead of China’s notoriously efficient censors. ... Weibo users are regularly engaged in a virtual debating free-for-all, touching on some of the most off-limits or politically touchy topics,” The Post’s Keith Richburg reported from Beijing in March.

When Chinese officials first announced they were considering regulations for Weibo in October, they expressed concern about people using the Internet to spread lies and rumors.

Governments, technology companies and Internet users around the world increasingly have engaged in this debate over anonymity online.

Although U.S.-based social media networks like Facebook and Google+ require users to give their real names, many people have found work-arounds. Twitter has had to assign blue checkmarks to verify that accounts belonging to public figures — who are often the target of parody accounts — are real.

However, there are reasons for keeping real names private. As my colleague Melissa Bell and I wrote in June, the ability to speak up under a different identity allows people the freedom to experiment without fear of retribution.

That has been true throughout the Arab Spring, and it’s been increasingly true on China’s social networks, too.

In July, when China’s government censors curbed reporting of a train crash that killed at least 40 people, Weibo users were the among the few places sharing information and photos of the crash online.

Weibo has proven its ability to galvanize public protests, which are illegal in China. In the northeastern city of Dalian, for example, microblogs helped bring together 12,000 people in protest of a petrochemical factory.

This past week, a four-month-old revolt in the village of Wukan in Guangdong province heated up, with the police putting the village on total lockdown. On Friday, the word “Wukan” was blocked on search engines and a message appeared in its place that read: “According to relevant law, regulations and policies, search results for Wukan cannot be displayed.” Weibo users reported that Wukan returned no search results for them, either.

The new rules also explicitly prohibit the use of microblogging to “incite illegal assembly.”

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