Beijing freezes social media service for a month for letting kids see smut

TikTok-esque Mini Worlds, part of the Tencent empire, shamed, fined, warned to do better

China's cyberspace regulator on Wednesday ordered Tencent's QQ messaging platform to shut down its short video creation and sharing service for 30 days after it found it had exposed minors to graphic sexual material.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) accused the 24-year-old social networking platform of harboring "a large amount of pornographic information in its Mini World section."

"Some users in the comment area induce minors to make bad friends, engage in sexual seduction, recruit minors to play games with them, seriously infringe on the legitimate rights and interests of minors, and endanger minors," states a CAC announcement, adding that Tencent has been fined ¥1 million ($187,000).

In addition to freezing its operations and fines, the CAC also said it would confiscate any associated ill-gotten profits.

According to state sponsored media Tencent QQ accepted the fine and will implement required changes.

A rectification campaign of its platform includes tech upgrades, improvements to the reporting and inspection processes, and unspecified "other measures" to strengthen governance and combat harmful content, reported the China Daily.

Mini World is a video and livestreaming segment of QQ designed to capture the youth market and keep a PC-era platform relevant in a mobile-era world. Chinese publication Tech World described Mini World as akin to TikTok but within the bounds of QQ, and reported last December that 70 percent of its users were born between 1995 and 2000.

"Through Mini World, we encourage contributors to create videos and images, and share them beyond their existing friend circle. We recommend attractive content in Mini World to QQ users based on their interest graphs, enabling users to explore more content and communities," explains [PDF] a Tencent results announcement from 2020.

That document also describes how the launch of QQ's Mini World video and image feed service – bolstered by pandemic-era growing demand for real-time video chatting – drove "daily time spent per QQ user up by a teens percentage year-on-year."

In 2022, the biz said it enriched Mini World's anime, comics and games content and launched AI-powered creation tools, thereby "increasing daily active users (DAU) and time spent per user significantly."

Growth in QQ mobile device users, however, seems to have slowed as China abandoned its zero-COVID strategy and citizens returned to their real-world lives. Mobile device monthly active users (MAU) grew [PDF] 0.4 percent year-on-year for Q2 2023 compared to 3.6 percent growth [PDF] year-on-year for Q4 2022.

In recent years, Beijing has appeared unrelenting in its efforts to shape the internet and use of platforms and apps at large. Recent regulations have also targeted everything from toxic online fan clubs to opportunistic livestreamers whose infomercials target children.

Falling afoul of Beijing's wishes, whether explicit or implied, can have dire consequences. One such situation was the blocking the IPO of Alibaba’s fintech arm Ant Group just two days before it was scheduled. The move was interpreted by many as retaliatory for comments made earlier in the month by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma.

While rare, the CAC has ordered features disabled from apps in the past as punishment for illegal behavior. In June of 2020, Weibo was ordered to do just that after it was deemed to have interfered with online communication and disseminated illegal information. Updates to the microblogging site's hot topic list were suspended for one week.

It is an action that could occur more frequently. The CAC vowed on Wednesday it would continue to focus on violations of law related to minors and increase law enforcement – particularly for platforms that "repeatedly make mistakes." ®

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