Monday, March 17, 2014

Sina Identifies Censorship and Real Name Risks in Its Weibo IPO Filing

According to March 15, 2014 article in the state-sponsored China Daily:
Twitter-like messaging service Weibo Corp filed on March 14 to raise $500 million via a US initial public offering, as Chinese companies flock to the American market in record numbers to take advantage of soaring valuations.

Weibo, owned by Sina Corp, becomes the latest Chinese Internet giant to tap US markets, following on the heels of search service Baidu and its own corporate parent. Alibaba, which owns a stake in Weibo, is expected to raise about $15 billion in New York this year, in the highest-profile Internet IPO since Facebook's in 2012.

Weibo increased ad revenue by 163 percent to $56 million in the final three months of 2013. Overall revenues leapt almost three-fold to $188.3 million in 2013, from $65.9 million in 2012. And its net loss shrank to $38.1 million in 2013 from $102.5 million the previous year.

Some excerpts from that document (emphasis in bold italics and red added by this blog):

Risks Relating to Doing Business in China

Regulation and censorship of information disseminated over the internet in China may adversely affect our business and subject us to liability for information displayed on our platform.

The PRC government has adopted regulations governing internet access and the distribution of information over the internet. Under these regulations, internet content providers and internet publishers are prohibited from posting or displaying over the internet content that, among other things, impairs the national dignity of China, is reactionary, obscene, superstitious, fraudulent or defamatory, or otherwise violates PRC laws and regulations. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in the revocation of licenses to provide internet content and other licenses and the closure of the concerned websites. The website operator may also be held liable for such censored information displayed on or linked to the website.

In addition, the MIIT has published regulations that subject website operators to potential liability for content displayed on their websites and for the actions of users and others using their systems, including liability for violations of PRC laws prohibiting the dissemination of content deemed to be socially destabilizing. The Ministry of Public Security has the authority to order any local internet service provider to block any internet website at its sole discretion. From time to time, the Ministry of Public Security has stopped the dissemination over the internet of information which it believes to be socially destabilizing. The State Administration for the Protection of State Secrets is also authorized to block any website it deems to be leaking state secrets or failing to meet the relevant regulations relating to the protection of state secrets in the dissemination of online information.

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. In March 2012, we had to disable the Comment feature on our platform for three days to clean up feeds related to certain rumors. To the extent that PRC regulatory authorities find any content displayed on our platform objectionable, they may require us to limit or eliminate the dissemination of such information on our platform. Failure to do so may subject us to liabilities and penalties and may even result in the temporary blockage or complete shutdown of our online operations. In addition, the Judicial Interpretation on the Application of Law in Trial of Online Defamation and Other Online Crimes jointly promulgated by the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which became effective on September 10, 2013, imposes up to a three-year prison sentence on internet users who fabricate or knowingly share defamatory false information online. The implementation of this newly promulgated judicial interpretation may have a significant and adverse effect on the traffic of our platform and discourage the creation of user generated content, which in turn may impact the results of our operations and ultimately the trading price of our ADSs. Although our active user base has increased over the past several years, regulation and censorship of information disseminated over the internet in China may 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. Any and all of these adverse impacts may ultimately materially and adversely affect our business and results of operations.

We are required to verify the identities of all of our users who post on Weibo, but have not been able to do so, and our noncompliance exposes us to potentially severe penalty by the Chinese government.

The Rules on the Administration of Microblog Development, issued by the Beijing Municipal Government in 2011, stipulate that users who post publicly on microblogs are required to disclose their real identity to the microblogging service provider, though they may still use pen names on their accounts. Microblogging service providers are required to verify the identities of their users. In addition, microblogging service providers based in Beijing were required to verify the identities of all of their users by March 16, 2012, including existing users who post publicly on their websites. The user identity verification requirements have deterred new users from completing their registrations on Weibo, and a significant portion of the registrations in which user identity information was provided were rejected because they do not match the Chinese government database.

We have made significant efforts to comply with the user verification requirements. However, for reasons including existing user behaviors, the nature of the microblogging product and the lack of clarity on specific implementation procedures, we have not been able to verify the identities of all of the users who post content publicly on Weibo. While the rules are not clear regarding the type and extent of penalties that may be imposed on non-compliant microblogging service providers, we are potentially liable for our noncompliance and may be subject to penalties including the deactivation of certain features on Weibo, termination of Weibo operations or other penalties imposed by the Chinese government. Any of the above actions may have a material and adverse impact on the trading price of our ADSs.

We may have to register our encryption software with Chinese regulatory authorities, and if they request that we change our encryption software, our business operations could be disrupted as we develop or license replacement software.
Pursuant to the Regulations for the Administration of Commercial Encryption promulgated in 1999, foreign and domestic companies operating in China are required to seek approval from the Office of the State for Cipher Code Administration, the Chinese encryption regulatory authority, for the commercial encryption products they use. Companies operating in China are allowed to use only commercial cipher code products approved by this authority and are prohibited to use self-developed or imported cipher code products without approval. In addition, all cipher code products shall be produced by those producers appointed and approved by this authority. Additional rules became effective in 2006 regulating many aspects of commercial cipher code products in detail, including development, production and sales.

Because these regulations do not specify what constitutes a cipher code product, we are unsure as to whether or how they apply to us and the encryption software we utilize. We may be required to register or apply for permits for our current or future encryption software. If the PRC authorities request that we register our encryption software or change our current encryption software to an approved cipher code product produced by an appointed producer, it could disrupt our business operations.

. . . .


Regulations on Internet Content Services

National security considerations are an important factor in the regulation of internet content in China. The National People’s Congress has enacted laws with respect to maintaining the security of internet operations and internet content. According to these laws, as well as the Administrative Measures on Internet Information Services, violators may be subject to penalties, including criminal sanctions, for internet content that:

• opposes the fundamental principles stated in the PRC Constitution;
• compromises national security, divulges state secrets, subverts state power or damages national unity;
harms the dignity or interests of the state;
• incites ethnic hatred or racial discrimination or damages inter-ethnic unity;
• undermines the PRC’s religious policy or propagates superstition;
• disseminates rumors, disturbs social order or disrupts social stability;
• disseminates obscenity or pornography, encourages gambling, violence, murder or fear or incites the commission of a crime;
• insults or slanders a third party or infringes upon the lawful rights and interests of a third party; or
• is otherwise prohibited by law or administrative regulations.

Internet content provision service operators are required to monitor their websites. They may not post or disseminate any content that falls within these prohibited categories and must remove any such content from their websites. The PRC government may shut down the websites of Internet Content Provision License holders that violate any of the above-mentioned content restrictions, order them to suspend their operations, or revoke their Internet Content Provision Licenses.

To comply with these PRC laws and regulations, we have adopted internal procedures to monitor content displayed on our platform, including a team of employees dedicated to screening and monitoring content uploaded on our platform and removing inappropriate or infringing content.

To the extent that PRC regulatory authorities find any content displayed on or through our platform objectionable, they may require us to limit or eliminate the dissemination or availability of such content on our platform or impose penalties, including the revocation of our operating licenses or the suspension or shutdown of our online operations. In addition, the costs of compliance with these regulations may increase as the volume of content and number of users on our website increase.

Regulations on Information Security

Internet content in China is also regulated and restricted from a state security point of view. The Decision Regarding the Safeguarding of Internet Security, enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and amended in 2009, makes it unlawful to: (i) gain improper entry into a computer or system of strategic importance; (ii) disseminate politically disruptive information; (iii) leak state secrets; (iv) spread false commercial information; or (v) infringe intellectual property rights.

The Administrative Measures for the Security Protection of International Connections to Computer Information Network, promulgated by the Ministry of Public Security in 1997, prohibit the use of the internet in ways that, among other things, result in a leakage of state secrets or the distribution of socially destabilizing content. Socially destabilizing content includes any content that incites defiance or violations of PRC laws or regulations or subversion of the PRC government or its political system, spreads socially disruptive rumors or involves cult activities, superstition, obscenities, pornography, gambling or violence. State secrets are defined broadly to include information concerning PRC’s national defense affairs, state affairs and other matters as determined by the PRC authorities.
The Provisions on Technological Measures for Internet Security Protection, promulgated by the Ministry of Public Security in 2005, require all internet content provision operators to keep records of certain information about their users (including user registration information, log-in and log-out times, IP addresses, content and time of posts by users) for at least 60 days and submit the above information as required by laws and regulations. Internet content provision operators must regularly update information security systems for their websites with local public security authorities, and must also report any instances of public dissemination of prohibited content. If an internet content provision operator violates these measures, the PRC government may revoke its Internet Content Provision License and shut down its websites.

In addition, the State Secrecy Bureau has issued provisions authorizing the blocking of access to any website it deems to be leaking state secrets or failing to comply with the relevant legislation regarding the protection of state secrets.

Because Weimeng is an internet content provision operator, we are subject to laws and regulations relating to information security. To comply with these laws and regulations, our VIE has completed the mandatory security filing procedures with local public security authorities. We regularly update our information security and content-filtering systems based on any newly issued content restrictions, and maintain records of user information as required by relevant laws and regulations. We have also taken measures to delete or remove links to content that, to our knowledge, contains information that violates PRC laws and regulations.

If, despite the precautions, we fail to identify and prevent illegal or inappropriate content from being displayed on or through our platform, we may be subject to liability. In addition, these laws and regulations are subject to interpretation by the relevant authorities, and it may not be possible to determine in all cases what content could result in liability. To the extent that PRC regulatory authorities find any content displayed on or through our platform objectionable, they may require us to limit or eliminate the dissemination or availability of such content or impose penalties, including the revocation of our operating licenses or the suspension or shutdown of our online operations. In addition, the costs of compliance with these regulations may increase as the volume of content and users on our website increase.