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China freezes out Tencent, Toutiao apps as crackdown widens
[BEIJING] China has ordered one of the country's fastest-growing internet startups, Beijing Bytedance Technology, to shut a popular joke-sharing app and delete its WeChat social media account, part of a resurgent effort to clean up online content.
The order to close "Neihan Duanzi" - a service through which users share often ribald jokes, videos and comedic skits - is the second time in as many days that regulators have gone after Bytedance's products in a crackdown on undesirable content. Bytedance, known as Jinri Toutiao, is one of the world's largest media startups with a valuation of over US$20 billion, thanks to its main news and video aggregation app.
Beijing periodically goes after media companies, seeking to purge social and internet platforms of government criticism and risque content. On Monday, censors ordered a nationwide freeze on downloads of four mobile apps that offered news feeds: Toutiao was the worst-affected with a three-week restriction on its bread-and-butter news app of the same name, local media reported.
Users trying to download Toutiao's main offering from smartphone maker Xiaomi's store get a message declaring the title under revision. Apps belonging to Tencent Holdings, NetEase and Phoenix News were also hit by shorter download bans, local media reported.
Then on Tuesday, the State Administration of Radio and Television issued a statement accusing "Neihan Duanzi" of hosting vulgar content that "triggered strong resentment from internet users."
On Wednesday, Toutiao CEO Zhang Yiming issued a lengthy apology to the government via a post on the company's official WeChat account. He pledged the startup would increase the number of staff dedicated to clearing banned content from 6,000 to 10,000, while creating a blacklist of banned users and developing better technology to boost censorship.
"We didn't realise that technology has to be guided by the core values of socialism so it can be used to spread positive energy, meet the requirements of the times and respect public order and good customs," he said in his post.
The cult popularity of "'Neihan Duanzi" ensured an outpouring of grief and anger online. With its WeChat account shut by Tuesday night, former users turned to Toutiao's inactive Weibo account to vent. By Wednesday, there were more than 10,000 fresh replies to a year-old post, from photos of funeral settings featuring framed copies of the company logo to selfies of crying men.
"I think it might be a potential threat to the society or the country, that Neihan Duanzi attracted more users and was gaining a greater rallying ability," raged one user with the handle 'Changed my name for a dog I raised'. Toutiao has traditionally steered clear of trouble by republishing news from other outlets and encouraging users to post content. It uses artificial intelligence to track the interests and behavior of users, serving up tailored content on a massive scale. But in recent months, its core services have repeatedly drawn scrutiny from Chinese authorities seeking to cut down on content deemed too vulgar or untrue.
"I'm a fully-grown man and I want to cry a little having used Duanzi for three years - every day when I'm on the toilet, can't sleep or when I'm bored," said one user named 'money, fame, women'. "When I was most sad and most lost, it was you who made me laugh. Goodbye!"