AI-driven aggregator Toutiao ‘sorry’ for vulgarity

By Chen Qingqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/11 21:18:40

Regulations on internet-related sectors set to intensify

Four news apps including Jinri Toutiao (top left) are being suspended for a few days to three weeks from downloading on Apple's App Store since Tuesday. Photo: VCG

Beijing-based news and information content platform Jinri Toutiao, or Toutiao, apologized on Wednesday for failing to screen out vulgar content, with industry insiders warning that further crackdowns on inappropriate content of vastly popular online platforms are likely to widen and Toutiao's ability to raise funds may be affected.

Zhang Yiming, CEO of Toutiao, a flagship app developed by Beijing Bytedance Technology Co, said in a public letter that Toutiao will permanently remove its Neihan Duanzi joke-sharing app because of the "wrong direction" the company has taken with it.

"Our product was not in line with core socialist values… and we did a terrible job in guiding public opinion," Zhang said in the letter released on Wednesday morning.

The company has focused on chasing growth and a bigger market scale, while failing to help users grasp a "positive energy" and assume their social responsibilities, the CEO noted.

Toutiao was listed in 2017 by industry consultancy CB Insights as a rising start-up among 100 of the most promising private companies applying artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. Toutiao was also the best-funded one, as it had raised $3.1 billion so far, CB Insights said.

Toutiao uses AI algorithms to provide personalized news recommendations for users. However, this business model has caused trouble for the company, and Zhang said that it will further enhance oversight of content by increasing the number of human reviewers.

"The team for reviewing Toutiao's content will be expanded from the current 6,000 to 10,000," he noted.

The State Administration of Radio and Television ordered Toutiao on Tuesday to shut down Neihan Duanzi for its vulgar content that had provoked public disgust, according to the website of the authority.

Also on Wednesday, Toutiao's sister app Douyin, a short video-sharing app that is seen as a clone of its US counterpart, reportedly closed its livestreaming and comment sections for a thorough content review, according to media reports.

"It's just the beginning of a full-scale cleanup of internet content in the country," Liu Dingding, a veteran industry analyst, told the Global Times on Wednesday. "AI is not omnipotent. US companies like YouTube all need to battle objectionable content, not to mention their Chinese counterparts, which still lag behind in advanced algorithms," he said.

Twitter-like platform Weibo released its monthly censorship report on Wednesday, with about 132,000 posts related to politics screened out or deleted due to harmful information, according to its official Weibo account. About 1.39 million posts deemed to have been spreading obscene content were removed. 

The recent incidents with Toutiao [including its app suspended using for three weeks since Monday] will have an impact on its ability to raise funds, Liu said. "It will take time for the start-up to correct its wrongdoing," he said.

In Toutiao's latest D-round financing, it secured funds from venture capital and private equity firms such as Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic. Sequoia Capital did not respond to the comment request by the Global Times on Wednesday on the regulatory clampdown on Toutiao.

"For sure, it will cause problems for [the company's] further fundraising or a potential IPO," the analyst said.

The full-scale crackdown on internet-related sectors has just started, Li Yi, a senior research fellow at the Internet Research Center under the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. "China's internet has been filled with distasteful content. Some of it violated intellectual property rights and some was just clickbait," he said. 

In the absence of a moral framework, some Chinese online platforms have faced mounting problems such as spreading vulgar content in recent years, and the tightened regulations will also target sectors beyond entertainment and culture, Li forecast.

"Every corner of the internet will be fully audited in this crackdown, which will extend to online financial services such as online payment and peer-to-peer lending as well as e-commerce," Li noted.

Similar video apps Kuaishou and Huoshan were removed from the Android app store on April 5. Tencent's WeChat and QQ also banned the direct playing function of short videos on their platforms on Wednesday.

However, Li said with further regulations of internet companies, some may accelerate their IPOs.

"Some institutional investors won't wait for the IPOs if authorities take tougher stance [on online platforms such as Toutiao and Kuaishou]," he said.


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