Censors angry about erotic literature in China’s favorite news app
ByteDance’s Toutiao becomes latest target in pornographic crackdown
Outside of China, things are good for ByteDance. Its viral short video app Tik Tok landed 30 million new users in three months, thanks to a merger with Musical.ly. But in China, the giant startup is once again running into trouble with its news aggregator, Toutiao.
This time, the target is Toutiao’s story section. That’s where users -- whether professional organizations or individual people -- publish works of fiction. But now regulators have ordered a one-month suspension of the section, accusing it of publishing pornographic content, Beijing Daily reports.
The offending articles are said to contain titles like, “After a night of debauchery, the man turned out to be her new boss” and “To make money to treat my ailing mother, I started working at a club. To my surprise, my first customer was my teacher.”
Online pornography is officially banned in China, but remains easily accessible on the web. Faced with the daunting task of monitoring each and every one of the country’s 802 million internet users, the government has chosen instead to delegate censorship to online platforms, giving them the power to filter out inappropriate content as they see fit. Companies who fail to comply face serious consequence, ranging from service shutdown to jail time for executives.
A high-profile court case in 2016 involved a company called Qvod that ran a hugely popular peer-to-peer, porn-streaming video player. During its heyday, it reportedly counted some 500 million users. The CEO was found guilty of distributing obscene materials for profit, and was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.
Toutiao itself is no stranger to crackdowns. Last year, the app was taken offline for 24 hours after being accused of spreading pornographic content, leaving it completely inaccessible to more than 120 million daily active users. Months later, the app was temporarily removed from Android app stores for three weeks, prompting a lengthy and dramatic apology from ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, who vowed to hire thousands of content reviewers.
Companies often try to take action before it’s too late. Toutiao publishes regular updates on accounts that have been banned. When Tencent was ordered to remove pornography and “vulgar online literature” on WeChat last month, the company announced on the same day it had banned more than 1,700 publishers from the app.