China's cyber watchdog raps top news apps over vulgar content

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s internet watchdog has ordered two top news feed sites to temporarily suspend parts of their platforms for broadcasting “vulgar” content and failing to implement censorship measures, amid tightening state control of what appears online.

Toutiao and Phoenix News, which host popular news streams similar to Facebook Inc’s feed, will suspend features including current affairs and Q&A sections from Friday evening for up to 24 hours, the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a notice on Friday.

The two platforms “broadcast pornographic and vulgar information, had serious issues of misguiding people, and had an evil influence on the ecosystem of online public discourse,” the regulator said in a statement on its website.

Online news platforms like Toutiao have grown rapidly by aggregating content. The platform has over 120 million active users a day and was valued at over $20 billion after a $2 billion funding round earlier this year.

However, China, under President Xi Jinping, has been tightening its grip on content, with strict new controls this year targeting online platforms. Many foreign news outlets and social media sites like Facebook or Youtube are already banned.

Officials say the measures are designed to maintain social stability as well as stamp out violence, nudity and fake news, but critics say the moves leave little room for dissent or critical opinion.

Toutiao and Phoenix did not respond to requests for comment outside of business hours on Friday.

According to the notice, the news apps produced and reposted news content without the necessary licenses. In China firms must apply for a license from the state to report news and appoint state-approved editors.

CAC has ordered several temporary and permanent suspensions this year, as well as levying fines against some of the country’s largest technology firms for censorship violations.

It handed down penalties to firms including Tencent Holdings Ltd, Baidu Inc and Weibo Corp in September for failing to properly censor content.

Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Susan Fenton