One of the fastest climbing Chinese startups of this past year needed a bumpy ride into 2018 after falling foul of China’s internet censors for the first.
ByteDance, the new media company behind news program Toutiao and the proprietor of Musical.ly courtesy of a $1 billion deal, needed a standout 2018. Its valuation jumped to more than $20 billion, it chose a number of global services — including Musical.ly and News Republic for $86 million — and began to execute within an ambitious strategy to expand outside China, where Toutiao alone asserts 120 million users.
That global growth might be a bit more pressing now after Toutiao, its flagship service, was taken offline for 24 hours in the run-up into New Year’s Eve, that the SCMP reported.
Toutiao is a one-stop-shop program for information that’s aggregated from Chinese media. It and Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television were shutdown for a day because they had “exerted a poor influence on online view,” according to the Beijing Internet Information Office. The duo were said to have encouraged “pornographic and vulgar content. ”
ByteDance didn’t return numerous requests for comment.
The program has since resumed normal service, however, the incident demonstrates that it’s now firmly on the radar of China’s internet censors.
China took a heavy-handed approach to regulating the internet this past year, with a few of technology’s largest names in the nation bearing the brunt occasionally — particularly around media and news content.
Baidu and Weibo were investigated over hosting porn, authorities cracked down on live-streaming providers as they jumped in popularity, though quite a few high-profile media reports were removed from WeChat because they did not “actively encourage socialist center values. ”
This 24-hour ban functions as a warning that Toutiao, also, must stick to Beijing’s attention.
“Generally, China’s leaders have been obsessed with the containment of negative coverage, and under Xi Jinping we’ve noticed a rather dramatic decline in acute coverage by China’s media,” David Bandurski, co-direct of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, advised the New York Times in September.
“What we now’re seeing is a war on the non-serious. It’s not enough for media content to prevent the negative. It has to be adequately positive,” Bandurski added.
That would create now a fantastic time to expand overseas. That’s something which ByteDance has been working on for a certain time, possibly in the knowledge that sooner or later it would capture Beijing’s eye.
The company has made moves in the U.S., via the Musical.ly offer and from buying Flipagram in February 2017, and it’s working to create Toutiao worldwide by using the exact same AI technology in its English-language news reader programs and News Republic, which it recently acquired from Cheetah Mobile. With Musical.ly, nevertheless, it will be focused on growing its presence in China and the rest of Asia, in which it’s far weaker than the U.S. economy, in which the agency asserts some 60 million users.
Becoming trapped in China’s censorship net is a rite of passage for any consumer startup, but it also reflects the first serious check on the development of ByteDance. Following a break-out 2017, this season is shaping up to offer a different sort of challenge.