China Bans Apps and Regulates Tech Giants to “Clean Up” Internet

TripAdvisor China, along with 104 other applications, has been banned in China as part of a sweeping internet “cleanup.” It is unclear why the travel company, a joint partnership between Massachusetts-based TripAdivsor and Trip.com, was targeted by Chines authorities. The Associated Press covered the puzzling ban:

Companies including the Chinese arm of TripAdvisor Inc. have been ordered by regulators to overhaul their mobile phone apps in what the Chinese government said is a crackdown on pornography and other improper content.

The National Cyberspace Administration ordered the removal of 105 apps including TripAdvisor from stores this week, although it gave no details of what each app was accused of doing wrong. It cited what it said were public complaints about obscene, pornographic and violent information or fraud, gambling and prostitution.

The ruling Communist Party tightly controls what the Chinese public sees online and has launched repeated crackdowns on websites and apps. [Source]

Internet “cleanups” are a regular tradition in China. In 2017, virtual private networks (VPNs) were the target of an . In 2019, an internet rectification drive blocked foreign news sites and domestic social media accounts. Apps can find themselves banned for a number of reasons, including “lacking essential government permits, or [… publishing] illegal or politically sensitive information.” Earlier this year, Chinese internet regulators warned Apple that it must only host licensed games on its app markets or face punishment, and the firm responded by removing nearly 30,000 unlicensed apps. Earlier this month, Apple announced that all unlicensed games will be removed from the store by December 31.

Pushes to ban apps and regulate content are part of a broader effort on behalf of Chinese authorities to curtail the power and influence of . After videos of self-proclaimed martial arts master Ma Baoguo went viral, censors directed internet companies to “cool down” coverage of him. At The South China Morning Post, Xinmei Shen examined how the crackdown on Ma Baoguo videos related to Beijing’s drive to create a “healthy” internet:

The death of Ma Baoguo memes are just one part of a wider crackdown on China’s internet companies. The country has recently made a series of major regulatory moves targeting its technology giants, signalling a shift in attitude in Beijing. Now practices that allowed some of these companies to scale – including fake traffic, differential pricing algorithms and other behaviours seen as anticompetitive – are being put under the spotlight as regulators try to rein in Big Tech.

“I think part of the way the Chinese government approached the digital sector was a sort of wait-and-see approach,” said Rogier Creemers, a lecturer at Leiden University who focuses on China’s digital governance. “The government essentially let these companies do their thing for a bit. They didn’t kill the chicken that lays the golden eggs, because Chinese Big Tech does a lot of things that the government wants and that the government knows it can’t do itself.”

[…] “This time, however, is different,” the Gavekal analysts wrote. “Rather than making a series of moves against individual companies, as it did in 2018, the government is making a comprehensive effort to regulate internet companies on the same basis as other businesses.” [Source]

Foreign nations have also used app bans to retaliate against China. The Trump Administration attempted to ban TikTok and WeChat in September, but a federal judge blocked the ban this week. After deadly clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Himalayas earlier this summer, India banned Weibo, Tiktok, and WeChat, among dozens of other apps. In late November, India further banned 43 Chinese apps, including Taobao and a popular Tencent-run video service. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson condemned ’s app ban and called on India “to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of international investors, including Chinese companies.” However, China has long defended its own foreign app bans under the concept of “cyber sovereignty.

Two months ago, Tuber, a web browser that allowed Chinese users to access Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Google without a VPN, tested China’s commitment to cyber sovereignty. The app was downloaded over five million times on Huawei’s app store between late September and early October. On October 9, a Global Times journalist hailed the app as “a great step for China’s opening up!” The following day Tuber was removed from Chinese app stores. Tuber’s swift demise followed that of similar schemes to tear down China’s . In 2018, a plan announced to open Hainan’s internet for foreigner tourists was shot down. Kuniao, an  app similar to Tuber, was likewise removed from app stores in 2019. At The Brookings Institution, David Bandurski examined why China’s leaders permit, and then destroy, apps that give Chinese users access to the global internet:

This leaves us with the million-dollar question: Why would an app that enables users to bypass the Great Firewall be permitted at all? What possible strategic interest could China’s leadership have in allowing the download and use of a tool that apparently allows circumvention of the world’s most sophisticated system of internet controls?

The likely answer is that Tuber may be a step toward transforming the nature of Chinese access to the global internet, moving from a period of walls and circumvention (through unauthorized ) to a period of controlled and “guided” access. The CCP leadership may recognize the need for a new era of more flexible information management, allowing Chinese internet users access beyond the reaches of the Great Firewall, while at the same time maintaining a decisive level of control over information the regime regards as threatening.

[…] First, greater flexibility enables the CCP to respond to demand inside China for greater access to the global internet, particularly from younger professionals. In fact, Tuber is not the first tool to offer such access. Launched in January this year, an app called “Weixing Search” advertised itself as a “cross-border browser” that allowed users to bypass the Great Firewall to access some content on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Revealingly, one review of “Weixing Search,” cross-posted on the website of China Daily, a newspaper published by the Chinese government, began with a unique selling proposition focused on Chinese youth. “As ideas in our time steadily advance, the desire and demand for searching the world grows steadily among the new generation of young people,” it said. The article included a screenshot of Google Scholar, a site blocked in China that would be a valuable resource for students requiring access to international scholarship in various disciplines. [Source]

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