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Sina's Weibo shuts accounts over 'rumors'

BEIJING -- China's most popular microblogging site is cracking down on what it says is the spread of false rumors after the ruling Communist Party told Internet companies to tighten control over information online.

The move by Sina Corp. reflects the pressure on China's Internet companies, most of which are privately owned, to take initiative to help Beijing enforce censorship or risk losing the right to operate profitable businesses in a fast-growing market.

Sina's Weibo service has sent notices to its 200 million users denying two reports posted on the site, including one about the killing of a 19-year-old woman. It said the accounts of users who originated the reports were temporarily closed.

The move comes amid the ruling party's most sweeping crackdown on dissent in years as it tries to prevent the rise of Middle East-style protests.

The party secretary for Beijing, Liu Qi, visited Sina's headquarters last Monday and said Internet companies should block the spread of false and harmful information, according to a party newspaper. Liu gave no details of what the party wanted, but Sina issued a statement Thursday saying it would “put more effort into attacking all kinds of rumors.”

Beijing encourages Internet use for education and business but worries about its potential to spread criticism of communist rule. Authorities tightened controls after social networking and other websites played a key role in protests that brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Others questioned whether the ruling party would use the policy to suppress the spread of true information that might embarrass officials.

“Do not ban the truth through 'refuting rumors,'” said one.

Web bulletin boards and Sina's microblogging site are especially sensitive because they give China's general public a rare opportunity to express opinions to a wide audience in a society where the party controls all media.

Communist leaders have allowed such services as they try to strike a balance between controlling information and developing an Internet industry they hope will help drive China's modernization. Private sector Internet services are required to monitor content on their own and quickly remove any that violates censorship rules.

Sina CEO Charles Chao told Forbes magazine in March that Weibo had at least 100 employees monitoring content 24 hours a day.

In its announcements Friday, Sina denied a report on Weibo that a suspect in the slaying of a 19-year-old woman was freed in the central city of Wuhan because of his politically influential father. It cited police as saying the suspect was still in detention.

Sina said the account of the user who spread the report was suspended for one month.

The company also denied a report that the Chinese Red Cross was improperly charging hospital patients for blood. It said the Red Cross had no role in managing blood donations, only in assisting health authorities with publicity.

Sina said it has created a separate channel dubbed “Weibo Refutes Rumors” to spread denials of false information. It announced an e-mail address for users to send reports of possible falsehoods.

China's online population is by far the world's biggest, with 485 million Internet users as of June 30, and is still growing rapidly, according to the government-sanctioned China National Internet Information Center.

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