Is China pulling down its Great Firewall?
CHINA has long been known for it’s tight regulations around its Internet content. The country’s regulators have moved aggressively in deciding what it’s Internet users, which is over the 750 million mark, can or cannot do online.
Known as the Great Firewall, China’s Internet censorship system blocks foreign websites, apps, social media, emails, and more, which are deemed inappropriate or offensive by authorities.
Some of the most popular websites and apps currently restricted in China include Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
A variety of technologies, including keyword filtering, IP address blacklists, and manual enforcement, are used by government-run Internet services providers and domestic Internet companies to censor content.
Instead, China’s own version of these websites were created, including WeChat and Weibo.com, which have now became Internet giants in their own right.
In the past, there had been some wiggle room around China’s notrious firewall. With the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), users could connect through a server run by a VPN provider, which masked the user’s IP address making it hard to track a user’s identity or location.
The use of VPNs in China had been grudgingly tolerated until last October, when Chinese authorities began further targeting VPNs and other tools used to circumvent the Great Firewall.
The regulations meant that users had to use real identities when posting on Internet forums or other platforms. This was to avoid ‘forbidden content’ being posted including damaging the nation’s honor, endangering national security, and disrupting social order.
Is China shedding its inhibitions?
Despite the country’s strict control over the freedom of its netizens and what they can and cannot do online, an announcement earlier this week showed a glimpse of hope towards China loosening it’s tight regulations.
In a recent press release, it was announced that Buzzfeed, the US online media firm best known for its viral listicles and memes, will be partnering with Bytedance, a popular Chinese online media company.
Tobias Wacker of BBH China, a creative advertising agency told Tech Wire Asia:
“In a digital ecosystem as complicated and fragmented as China’s, breaking into the market through partnerships with established platforms are a vital option for western publishers. For Buzzfeed, Bytedance seems like a perfect fit to introduce its content to Chinese audiences.”
The Chinese company has agreed to distribute BuzzFeed’s content via its Toutiao, TopBuzz. and Xigua Video platforms. Bytedance’s AI-operated news portal, Toutiao, has a reported 120 million active users per day.
The partnership represents a profound milestone for the Chinese digital market, in regards to dissolving geographic borders to become dynamic, exciting, and big(er) than they have ever been.
For BuzzFeed, it represents a significant opportunity to diversify and broaden its reach, especially as the company’s advertising revenues have come under pressure from Facebook and Google recently. Last November, the US company was forced to cut around 100 jobs after missing its revenue target for 2017.
BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 and has become a major platform for viral content thanks to its ability to generate traffic via several social networks.
But with many of these major social media platforms being inaccessible in China, it was near impossible to reach China’s online population of over 700 million.
This partnership therefore represents an opportunity to reach a large Chinese audience, and could potentially breathe new life into BuzzFeed.
“We look forward to meaningfully engaging Chinese audiences in our feedback loop, to learn more about what they love,how they use and interact with our content and what they’d like to see” said BuzzFeed’s International Vice President, Scott Lamb, in a statement.
“We’re thrilled about this first foray into testing our content there.”
BuzzFeed’s leg over China’s Great Firewall is a rare occurrence for Western media, which will be sure to test the limits of the country’s strict content and censorship regulations.
Just last month, China’s powerful Cyberspace Administration ordered Bytedance-owned Toutiao to suspend features including its current affairs section due to its ‘vulgar’ content and accused it of being an ‘evil influence’.
Toutiao later said they were in the midst of recruiting an additional 2000 censors to add to its team of content auditors, who carry out the reviewing and censoring of content on the platform.
It is uncertain as to what BuzzFeed content will be selected to be published on the Chinese platforms. Content on the US platform ranges from reports on politically sensitive topics to lifestyle and celebrity gossip.
In order for BuzzFeed to attract a Chinese following, it is important that their content is localized accordingly.
“localizing not just the platform, but the content is key to attract a following amongst Chinese netizens. While Tasty or Goodful have been immensely popular with Western audiences, it’s recipes are skewed towards a western palate and similar formats, like yirenshi are already established with millions of loyal followers,” says Wacker.
Even so, Buzzfeed’s venture into the Chinese digital-content market represents a step towards China allowing access to more diverse content.