Tech Firms Boost Censorship as Legal Challenge Proceeds

The New York Times’ Raymond Zhong reported this week on a popular news, blog, and entertainment aggregation app’s collision with authorities as its soaring user base and $30 billion valuation bring down closer official scrutiny:

The makers of the popular news app Jinri Toutiao unveiled moves this week to allay rising concerns from the authorities. Last week, the Beijing bureau of China’s top internet regulator accused Toutiao of “spreading pornographic and vulgar information” and “causing a negative impact on public opinion online,” and it ordered that updates to several popular sections of the app be halted for 24 hours.

In response, the app’s parent company, Beijing Bytedance Technology, took down or temporarily suspended the accounts of more than 1,100 bloggers that it said had been publishing “low-quality content” on the app. It also replaced Toutiao’s “Society” section with a new section called “New Era,” which is heavy on state media coverage of government decisions.

The change was made, the company said, to “promote the spirit of the Communist Party congress,” referring to the gathering of top party leaders that took place in Beijing in October. [See more background via CDT.]

[… O]ne of the accounts that were suspended this week had posted a saucy video of a woman in a short skirt. It got 57,000 views. Another suspended account had recently put up a post titled “The World’s Ugliest Celebrities, Michael Jackson Is Ranked First, You Won’t Want to Eat After Reading This.”

“Once you have more people watching, then you want to be more cautious,” Wei-Ying Ma, who heads Toutiao’s artificial intelligence lab, told a conference in Beijing last month. [Source]

The regulators’ content complaints echo similar demands last year, including an investigation of Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat, and Baidu’s Tieba which led to small but symbolically significant fines against the three companies.

Toutiao was also operating its online news service without the appropriate license according to Caixin, which noted that the New York-listed Phoenix News had also been accused of exceeding the terms of its license to republish content by adding its own original reporting. It was reportedly ordered to suspend two channels as a result.

According to Hong Kong Free Press’ Catherine Lai, Toutiao is now enlarging its content moderation workforce by 50% in response to the CAC’s criticism:

The Paper reported on Wednesday that Toutiao was recruiting content reviewers on tech jobs search site Lagou. The mainland outlet reported that the firm was aiming to recruit around 2,000 reviewers. It said the company currently employs over 4,000 content reviewers – the largest such team in the country.

According to the job ad, Toutiao requires staff to examine around 1,000 items per day for illegal content and is seeking candidates who are passionate about news, care about current events, and have good “political sensitivity and judgement.” The position requires applicants to hold undergraduate degrees or above, and said party members would be given priority.

[…] Hong Kong political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu told Apple Daily that, by giving party members priority, the company was trying to appease the authorities and protect itself, and surmised that the media outlet would soon revert to its old ways.

“In the short term, [the changes] can indeed show the effect of the authorities’ intimidation, but the authorities cannot possibly monitor nearly a billion netizens.” [Source]

Read more on Toutiao’s content monitoring from Reuters last September.

Other tech firms are continuing existing efforts to boost their content monitoring capacities. These include recruitment of users, as the focus of internet controls shifts down to the individual level. From Echo Huang at Quartz:

On Monday (Jan. 1), China’s tech giant said it was hiring (link in Chinese) 200 content reviewers to form what the company is calling a “penguin patrol unit,” after the company’s penguin mascot. The brigade, made of 10 journalists, 70 writers who use ’s content platforms, and 120 regular internet users, will flag “low-quality” content.

Reviewers will be required to make at least 300 reports each month about “harmful information,” including porn, sensational headlines, plagiarism, fake news, or old news. Those who complete the mission will get 30 virtual coins which can be used to purchase items on Tencent’s QQ chat app. Those who fail to meet the reporting quota three times will be booted from the unit.

[…] Other Chinese media platforms are also enlisting help to cope with censorship demands—especially after facing more direct pressure.

, which has 313 million users, put out a similar notice last September, according to Beijing-based metropolitan newspaper Morning Post. said it ended up recruiting 776 people (link in Chinese), who collectively reported around 1.3 million instances of pornographic information in November, according to its official account. The group paid the supervisors 200 yuan ($31) per month, with the top performer winning an iPhone 8 Plus. [Source]

While tech firms—both domestic and foreign—acquiesce to official demands to enforce online censorship rules, a 30-year-old Shanghai man is challenging the authorities to explain the legal basis for some of them. From Patrick Brzeski at Hollywood Reporter:

Fan Chunlin, a 30-year-old man from Shanghai, filed a lawsuit Wednesday with Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court demanding that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) clarify the policy basis for a regulation introduced last summer banning depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The court accepted Fan’s case and is now required to hold hearings and issue a decision within six months, the plaintiff’s lawyer, Tang Xiangqian, told local state media.

Fan’s suit came in response to a new set of guidelines issued in June 2017 banning internet content providers from carrying programs that "present abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior," including homosexuality. Altogether, 84 topics were banned by the rule, with other taboo subjects including portrayals of Chinese imperialism, "unhealthy" views towards money and sexual violence. [Read more from The New York Times last September.]

[…] Yanzi Peng, founder of Advocacy of China, which has been supporting Fan and his lawyer, says he is not optimistic about the outcome of the case.

"We expect to lose somehow, because this is a national government department [we are challenging]," he says. "But we still wanted to file the case because we have to show the position from our community and to tell society that we are not abnormal." [Source]

For more on China’s internet controls, see CDT’s recap of leaked media directives published over the course of 2017.