Chinese netizens boycotted a new service rolled out by the hugely popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo this week, after the company tried to launch a fee-paying membership system for tweeters.
Sina, which last month stepped up controls on what its users can post online, announced the new system on Monday, offering special privileges to users who paid the 10 yuan/month membership fee.
But an opinion poll carried out by the "Morning News" website found that 90 percent of more than 7,000 respondents said they "would not pay" the fee.
Sina users have already been warned that anyone posting too much "inappropriate" content could be banned from the Twitter-like service.
Sina Weibo users who post five items of "sensitive" news could be barred from posting for 48 hours, while anyone judged to have posted "harmful information" could have their accounts revoked "in serious cases," the company has told its users.
Xiamen-based blogger Peter Guo said he would be one of the Sina users who boycotted the membership service.
"I won't buy their services," Guo said. "There is a basis for the 10 yuan/month charge on Tencent [microblogging service] because basically most Chinese users use are on the QQ [chat service] too."
"Sina obviously thinks there should be a market for a 10 yuan/month service, but, aside from microblogging, there are no other services," he said.
Guo said Sina's top management had been racking their brains for years to work out how to make a profit out of short messaging services like Weibo.
"In reality, this probably isn't going to happen," he said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Sina Weibo customer service line said the company would continue to offer free microblogging services, however.
"A membership account and a Weibo account are not the same thing," the employee said. "The members are a bit like VIPs, and enjoy certain privileges."
"They have identity privileges and security privileges, and they can follow more accounts, while ordinary accounts are limited to following
One netizen surnamed Zhang from the northwestern region of Xinjiang said that neither company offers users a service that enables them to express themselves freely online, and that both Tencent and Sina routinely delete content considered critical of the government.
"It seems to me as if they are controlling content very strictly on the microblogs, so that even the most ordinary criticisms get deleted now," he said. "Now, they have another method up their sleeve, which is that they can block your I.P. address."
"This means that you won't even be able to post comments on other websites," Zhang said. "This will have a bigger impact on netizens than simply charging for services."
China is preparing to roll out tighter Internet controls, extending a real-name registration system in place since March that has been confined to Beijing-based bloggers, according to a new set of official guidelines likely to become law.
In an amendment to existing Internet services management regulations, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will make real-name registration a legal requirement for participation in forums, blogs, microblogs, and any other interactive online services.
The move will mean less breathing room for China's netizens, whose online activities are already closely monitored, and whose access to content is controlled by a complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
Chinese computer experts say that the government has continually sought ways to limit freedom of expression on the Internet since people started using it, and that controls on the nation's 250 million microbloggers are only the latest step in that process.
Beijing-based microbloggers have been prevented since March from registering an account on one of the country's hugely popular Twitter-like services in anything but their real name, verified by their national ID card.
The move has been slammed by netizens and rights groups alike as a huge blow to freedom of expression in China, where 513 million netizens rely on forums, social media, and bulletin boards to find news and views that have been censored out of the tightly controlled state media.
However, authorities have detained a number of netizens and online editors over retweeted material that was deemed controversial under new guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of online "rumors."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.