Tencent’s Reddit Stake Stirs Censorship Fears

Social news aggregation site successfully raised $300 million in a financing round this week that leaves the website valued at $3 billion. As expected, China-based multinational technology conglomerate Tencent Holdings invested $150 million into the link-sharing website. While the investment falls far short of an acquisition, Redditors took to the platform to express concerns over the potential free speech implications of a leading Chinese firm becoming a shareholder in Reddit, a platform often associated, sometimes awkwardly, with a devotion to free expression. Reddit, the self-described “front page of the internet,” was banned in China last August, though since then some users have managed to access the site. At TIME, Tara Law surveys the alarms sounded in subreddits both before and after the financing round:

Most of the backlash has been in the form of a number of posts to one of the site’s most popular groups, r/pics, which has over 20 million subscribers. Redditors have written that they feared the site, which is famously a bastion of free speech (with some exceptions) and the home of many niche communities, could end up facing censorship as is seen in China. There, the government blocks references to the bloody 1989 massacre in the Beijing square, as well as images that are more subtly subversive, such as [Winnie-thePooh] the iconic and lovable Disney bear.

Since the deal was first reported five days ago, numerous Reddit users posted threads and memes criticizing the investment, arguing that it would cause Reddit to clamp down on outside of China. One post, which included the iconic image of a single man stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square, was by far the most popular post of the week and “up-voted” more than 200,000 times.

Some Reddit users posted Winnie the Pooh as an example of how arbitrary Chinese censors could be. [See prior CDT coverage of this protest meme]

[…] “Reddit is now funded by Chinese investors, so let’s remember that President Xi Jinping is so insecure in a meme that he banned Winnie the Pooh nationwide,” wrote Redditor kproxurworld.

[…] Others also posted the iconic image of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. [Source]

At ZDNet Charlie Osborne and Zero Day provide context on the “irony of Reddit joining forces with Tencent, especially considering the platform is banned in China,” that Redditors highlighted in their posts:

Tencent is the owner of WeChat, a messaging application which has proven popular to Chinese citizens. The Chinese ruling party requires that social networks operating in the country offer “healthy” environments, and in November, this led to a mass clean-up of the app in light of the government’s demands.

[…] One particular image posted of Winnie The Pooh with the phrase, “Given that Reddit just took a $150 million investment from a Chinese censorship powerhouse, I thought it would be nice to post this picture of Winnie The Pooh before our new glorious overlords decide we cannot post it anymore,” has been upvoted thousands of times.

[…] Another issue beyond a Reddit-style Great Wall of China that has been raised is the potential for data collection. However, considering the style of funding and that Tencent has not acquired Reddit — nor the data on users it holds — this worry, at least for now, is unwarranted. [Source]

Bloomberg News’ Julie Verhage relays an explanation from Reddit’s CEO on the logic behind the two companies’ new relationship:

Steve Huffman, the chief executive officer of Reddit, said Tencent’s expertise in video games is part of what drew the two companies together. “Video games are one category that’s really popular on Reddit,” Huffman told CNBC.

Spokeswomen for Reddit and Tencent declined to comment on the outcry from users. Andreessen Horowitz, Fidelity Investments and Sequoia Capital were among the other investors in the round.

Reddit has an outspoken community that has used the company’s own website to protest against its actions in the past. The site has long been banned in China, according to researcher GreatFire.org. The free speech campaign by Reddit users may ensure that remains the case for some time. [Source]

Global concerns over Chinese tech companies are amplified by the ambiguous line between private corporation and government organization–one made increasingly thin by recent legislation aimed at “ideological security,” including the National Security Law and the Cybersecurity Law. These concerns were recently given a global media spotlight following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada on a U.S. extradition warrant. On Twitter, Chinese tech-watcher Elliott Zaagman describes Tencent’s unique place within this ambiguity:

Last month, Zaagman tweeted a stream detailing the requirements and pressure the Party places on influential tech firms in China.