Beijing fines and warns big tech groups over explicit content

Beijing’s cyber watchdog has fined and warned several of China’s biggest technology groups including Alibaba and Tencent over explicit material and exploitation of children on their platforms.

The Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement it was responding to the proliferation of obscene images and videos including “child-related” sexual content.

It did not specify how much the groups had been fined but on Wednesday the CAC summoned executives from ecommerce group Alibaba’s Taobao platform, internet giant Tencent’s messaging app QQ and China’s biggest social media platform Sina Weibo, as well as short-video company Kuaishou and popular fashion platform Xiaohongshu.

The move by the regulator marked the latest turbulence for China’s tech companies. The sector has come under intense scrutiny amid sweeping changes in Chinese data and antitrust oversight laws and regulations.

The companies were told on Wednesday that children under the age of 16 were “strictly forbidden” from appearing in live video streams. They were also told to “clean up” animation videos that “exposed characters, erotic and vulgar plots, bloody horror scenes and others dangerous behaviours”.

The CAC warned it would take a “zero tolerance” approach and increase punishments and penalties for violations.

None of the groups was immediately available to comment on the regulator’s actions.

The Hong Kong-traded shares of Tencent, Alibaba and Kuaishou fell after the announcement.

The CAC’s moves over explicit content follow rising public concern and calls from some corners of Chinese state media to tackle online exploitation of young people.

The People’s Daily, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper, in March criticised online platforms over what it said was a lack of content supervision, which opened the door to “pornographic and violent” live broadcasts. “The platforms make a lot of money, but the young suffer,” it said.

Still, experts have noted that despite years of campaigns to nominally weed out explicit content on China’s internet, such material has not been a priority for Beijing’s censors.

In his book China’s Digital Nationalism, academic Florian Schneider argued it was “highly unlikely” that the abundance of explicit content was “an oversight” given “the degree of sophistication with which China’s censors monitor the web”.

“Considering the staggering amounts of revenue that web advertising generates in digital China, and particularly the way that . . . the porn industry is often at the forefront of digital commerce, it seems plausible that the censors turn a blind eye to the ways in which the discourse becomes sexualised and radicalised for commercial consumption,” wrote Schneider, a lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands. 

According to McKinsey, since China’s coronavirus outbreak and lockdown last year the population has become “even more digital” from an already high base. Before the pandemic, China’s 855m digital consumers spent an average of six hours on their phones per day, twice as long as those in the US, the consultancy found.

In April, Chinese officials summoned to a meeting representatives from many of country’s biggest fintech companies and told them to “rectify” all the problems on their platforms.

Criticism by Alibaba’s Jack Ma of China’s banking regulators last year sparked a series of crackdowns on both the billionaire and his business empire. Earlier this month, the CAC caused Didi Chuxing’s share price to plummet days after its $4.4bn US initial public offering when it banned the ride-hailing app from signing up new users.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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