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Beijing may finally fix one of the biggest headaches of using China’s internet

October 20, 2021, 10:43 AM UTC

China’s firewalled internet, where the government censors content and major platforms like Google and Facebook are blocked, already features just a portion of the digital world as it appears elsewhere. But inside the firewall, China’s internet is subdivided even further. So-called walled gardens separate China’s internet into fiefdoms belonging to tech giants like social media firm Tencent and short video maker ByteDance. The partitioning means that search engines like Baidu—China’s Google equivalent—capture only a tiny slice of content that’s published online. That may soon change. Bloomberg reports that Beijing will force Tencent and ByteDance, and its Chinese TikTok equivalent Douyin, to make their content available to search engines like Baidu.

The move would be Beijing’s latest effort to tear down China’s walled gardens, a term that refers to closed ecosystems set up by tech giants to keep users from straying to outside platforms.

In the U.S., companies like Google and Apple have been similarly criticized for setting up their own fortified corners of the internet. Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, for example, recently sued Apple and accused it of setting up a digital walled garden for forcing third-party apps like Fortnite to use Apple’s payment platforms instead of their own. On Sept. 10, a judge ruled in favor of Apple on nine of 10 counts Epic brought against it but said Apple will have to allow developers to link to other online storefronts.

But the walls subdividing China’s internet are harder to clear.

Tencent, via its social messaging platform WeChat, acts as one of China’s largest news publishers, but its hundreds of millions of articles are not accessible to searches on Baidu because the publicly traded search engine company is outside Tencent’s digital empire. Last year, articles posted on public WeChat accounts reached 360 million WeChat users, an audience larger than the population of the United States, according to WeChat founder Allen Zhang. But not a single one of those articles will pop up in a Baidu search. Links to posts on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform owned by Sina Corporation, are also blocked on WeChat platforms, meaning a user can’t share a Weibo post with friends on WeChat the way a U.S. user might forward a tweet on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. (Tencent says it has started unblocking some Weibo links since September.)

It’s unclear who’s at fault; whether platforms like Tencent are blocking Baidu from showing their content or whether Baidu is choosing to surface its own content instead. But “search sucks in China,” as Jordan Schneider, a China and technology analyst at Rhodium Group, wrote in his China Talk newsletter, and “most blame Baidu.”

In 2019, an article by Fang Kecheng, now an assistant professor in media studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, went viral on WeChat for accusing Baidu of prioritizing its own content instead of providing users with a more comprehensive picture of what lives on the Chinese internet.

“Baidu.com is no longer where you search for online content in Chinese,” Fang wrote. Instead, it’s “an in-site search of its self-made content.”

But the problem appears to run deeper than any one individual company, according to Schneider. Baidu may block competitor content on its own platforms, but the practice is essentially the industry standard among China’s tech giants.

“Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese tech giants have suffered from more intense competitive pressures so have not learned to play well with each other and thus keep their content proprietary,” Schneider writes.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will ultimately have the final say on whether to issue new rules that force companies like Tencent and ByteDance to open up their content to search. But regulators have already demonstrated that they intend to tear down walled gardens between Chinese tech firms in other areas.

In April, Beijing slapped Alibaba with a $2.8 billion fine for anticompetitive practices, like forcing its e-commerce merchants to sign exclusivity contracts that banned them from selling goods on competitors’ sites. In July, regulators ordered Tencent and its music streaming subsidiary to give up exclusive song streaming rights that barred artists from selling their music to other streaming platforms.

Blocking links between platforms “messes up users’ experience, harms their rights, and disrupts the market,” Zhao Zhiguo, the general director of MIIT’s Information and Communication Management Bureau, said at a press conference in September.

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