WeChat, Weibo Among Targets in China Cybersecurity Probe

By Josh Chin Features Dow Jones Newswires

China's internet regulator is investigating whether some of the country's biggest social-media platforms violated the nation's new cybersecurity law by hosting content including "violent terrorism, fake rumors and pornography."

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This is the Cyberspace Administration of China's first formal investigation of the platforms under the sweeping law, which tightens the government's grip on what passes through the country's computer networks. It is targeting WeChat, the immensely popular messaging app run by Tencent Holdings Ltd., Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo Corp. and search giant Baidu Inc's Tieba message boards, according to a notice posted Friday on the regulator's website.

The statement said violations of the law would be punished but didn't specify how, or identify the content suspected of being in violation. Preliminary investigations found users of the platforms were spreading rumors, pornography and terror-related content that threatens public security and social order, the statement said.

"Cyberspace administration departments will earnestly implement the cybersecurity law and related regulations, further increase efforts to enforce legal supervision over internet content and investigate illegal activity on the internet according to law," it said.

Tencent and Weibo didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Baidu declined to comment.

Regulators likely targeted the biggest companies as a signal to the industry to fall in line, said Zhu Wei, vice-chair of the China University of Political Science and Law's Internet Research Center in Beijing and an adviser to the Cyberspace Administration.

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"It's meaningless to go after the little companies," Mr. Zhu said. "With a law like this, it's going to take time for everyone to adjust to the new environment."

The law, which took effect in June, takes a broad view of cybersecurity. In addition to tightening government control over data and encouraging the training of internet security experts, it also bans the use of computer networks for a long list of activities, including those that endanger "national honor and interests" or undermine "national unity."

The Cyberspace Administration of China didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Campaigns to scrub the internet of content authorities see as threatening or undesirable are nothing new in China, but the ruling Communist Party has recently given that effort the weight of law.

After denying for years that China's websites are subject to censorship, the country's internet regulators now hold up their online "management" as a model for others to follow. After Facebook Inc. began taking steps earlier this year to combat fake and inaccurate news stories, Weibo Chairman Charles Chao told CNBC that his company had been doing the same for years.

"I think we have more experience in dealing with the issues, and I think we are also more aware that this could be a problem if we don't deal with that," he said.

China has stepped up oversight of media content in advance of the 19th Party Congress this fall, where President Xi Jinping is expected to get a second five-year term and the party's leadership will be shuffled.

WeChat, a do-everything platform that has nearly 1 billion users, elevated censorship last month following the death in police custody of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, automatically blocking text and images related to Mr. Liu in one-on-one chats.

Alyssa Abkowitz contributed to this article.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 11, 2017 02:29 ET (06:29 GMT)