ByteDance’s Douyin ‘won’t be the last’ to be punished in China’s Big Tech crackdown, state media says - Telenor

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January 11, 2021

ByteDance’s Douyin ‘won’t be the last’ to be punished in China’s Big Tech crackdown, state media says


(SCMP) Beijing’s latest crackdown on Douyin , a popular short video sharing app run by Chinese internet giant ByteDance , is meant to send an important message to the country’s Big Tech companies that they must redouble efforts to toe the government line and censor any content deemed unhealthy, according to state media and government sources.


The National Office for the Fight Against Pornography and Illegal Publications, a government agency tasked with cleaning up China’s web, said on Friday that it fined Douyin the maximum penalty for spreading “obscene, pornographic and vulgar information”.


The regulator did not specify the amount of the fine slapped on ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok. But according to a source familiar with the case, it added up to only “tens of thousands of yuan”.


“The amount is tiny for a big company like ByteDance, but the message is clear that [the company] has to toe the line,” said the source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.


The official Xinhua news agency said in an editorial a few hours later that Douyin’s punishment was intended to send a “clear signal” to China’s internet companies that tighter regulations are on the way and “you have to follow the rules no matter who you are”.


“Douyin is not the first to be punished and it will not be the last,” according to the Xinhua editorial. “All internet platforms will be treated equally by regulators regardless of their size.”


The punishment by the anti-pornography agency, which answers directly to the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda authority, came as China’s leadership is trying to rein in the runaway development of large internet platforms.


Yuan Pingfang, deputy secretary-general of the internet culture committee of the China Culture Administration Association, said Douyin’s penalty sent a signal that strict internet regulation will be the new normal and platforms must treat content moderation as part of normal work.


Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on the internet and censored content deemed inappropriate, including pornography, gambling, fake news and political dissent in recent years. The efforts are likely to continue through 2021, when the ruling Communist Party will celebrate its 100th anniversary, a key milestone year in China’s development plan.


A two-day nationwide meeting by the Cyberspace Administration of China this week concluded that China’s internet regulators must “provide powerful online opinion support” to the country’s development in 2021.


Last month, Chinese regulators ordered video platform Bilibili to “rectify itself in a period of two weeks” and “comprehensively investigate” content such as pornography and vulgar material that violated laws and regulations.


In the third quarter of 2020, the cyberspace watchdog closed nearly 9,000 “illegal websites” and fined major platforms such as Weibo, Douban, Sohu and NetEase Music for behaviour that includes “not having fulfilled the obligation to manage information posted by users”.


ByteDance, a Beijing-based company founded by 37-year-old Zhang Yiming, has been severely punished by China’s content censors before. Its popular joke-sharing app, Neihan Duanzi, was shut down for good in April 2018 by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television for hosting “vulgar” and “improper” content.


Zhang issued a public “self-criticism” letter following the closure of Neihan Duanzi, an app with 200 million users, and hired an army of “moderators” to help censor content on other platforms.


Douyin, meanwhile, has thrived with 600 million daily active users by August 2020, meaning one out of two Chinese mobile phone users opens the app at least once a day. ByteDance has discussed listing the app in Hong Kong via an initial public offering, Reuters reported last October, citing sources.


The short video app is known to be strict in following China’s internet regulations – in November alone, it reported removing nearly 684,000 accounts due to their promotion of illegal or substandard products and taking down 8,700 accounts accused of promoting erotic, vulgar and fraudulent content during live-streaming.


China’s official media and government agencies are also thriving on the platform. For instance, the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily has 120 million followers on its official Douyin account.


Yet, according to the anti-pornography office, the platform’s content is still not clean enough. In the statement on Friday, the regulator said it received over 900 reports related to pornographic and vulgar content on Douyin last year – not a large number given that the app’s users had registered an average of 400 million video searches a day as of December 2020, according to a report released this week.


ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the penalty.


The Beijing-based company’s in-house content moderation team is staffed by more than 20,000 people, according to tech media LatePost.


But Zhang Dingding, the former head of Beijing-based research firm Sootoo Institute, said that no single [internet] platform, including Twitter and Facebook, can assure “100 per cent” healthy content.


“ByteDance was punished not due to the lack of capability to perform its duty [of content moderation], but because it hasn’t done the work well enough within its reach,” Zhang said.


Source: South China Morning Post by Coco Feng in Beijing, Tracy Qu and Zhou Xin

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