China Freezes Out Tencent, Toutiao Apps as Crackdown Widens

(Bloomberg) -- China has ordered one of the country’s fastest-growing internet startups, Beijing Bytedance Technology Co., to shut a popular joke-sharing app and delete its WeChat social media account, part of a resurgent effort to clean up online content.

Beijing’s latest campaign to sterilize the internet began Monday when it demanded a halt to downloads of a quartet of news apps run by Bytedance -- known commonly by its main app, Toutiao -- and Tencent Holdings Ltd., among others. Then came an order to shut Toutiao’s “Neihan Duanzi,” a service through which users share often ribald jokes, videos and comedic skits.

That was the second time in as many days that regulators have gone after products made by Toutiao, one of the world’s largest media startups with a valuation of over $20 billion and hundreds of millions of users. On Wednesday, the company’s music-themed video platform Douyin was also reportedly ordered to suspend live-streaming functions. A search through the Android and iPhone versions of the app, popular among teens, called up only pre-recorded clips.

Beijing periodically goes after media companies, seeking to purge social and internet platforms of government criticism and risque content. But Toutiao appears to be the worst-affected this time round, drawing 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, NetEase Inc. and Phoenix News were also hit by shorter download bans, local media reported.

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 to 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 realize 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.

Zhang was responding in part to the State Administration of Radio and Television, which on Tuesday issued a statement accusing “Neihan Duanzi” of hosting vulgar content that “triggered strong resentment from internet users.”

The app’s cult popularity of however ensured an outpouring of grief and anger online. With its WeChat account shut by Tuesday, 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 create content. It uses artificial intelligence to track the interests and behavior of viewers, serving up tailored content on a massive scale. But in recent months, its core services have 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!”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: David Ramli in Beijing at dramli1@bloomberg.net.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from David Ramli