Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Chinese Watchdog Warns Alibaba on Sale of Web Access Tools

Updated on
  • The CAC says it’s found illegal VPNs and other items on Taobao
  • Beijing has cracked down as the Party Congress approaches

China’s top cyberspace regulators have warned Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and other online services against carrying illicit content, substances and tools to help users circumvent the nation’s internet content barriers.

The Cyberspace Administration of China on Thursday singled out five services, including Alibaba’s Taobao internet bazaar, for criticism and ordered them to rectify their problems immediately. Responding to reports from users, it discovered “controlled substances” as well as illegal virtual private network tools -- used to access foreign websites -- for sale on Taobao, the regulator’s Zhejiang branch said in a post on its WeChat account.

The latest decree comes as China increases pressure over the domestic arena in the run-up to an important Communist Party Congress later this year that’s expected to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s authority. Intent on muzzling potential sources of disruptive information, the government has shut livestreaming services and websites, tightened regulations governing VPNs, and issued repeated warnings about the need to clean up content through various agencies. Observers say the enhanced scrutiny is also characteristic of Xi’s administration.

Last week, the online watchdog declared an investigation into reports of multiple content violations at news services run by Tencent Holdings Ltd., Baidu Inc. and Weibo Corp. All three later said they would cooperate with the probe and remove objectionable content. Before that, escalating a crackdown that began early this year, the government moved in July to stop individuals from using VPNs, one of the few remaining cracks in the so-called “Great Firewall” that prevents access to banned websites from Twitter to Google.

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Taobao is the country’s largest online marketplace and Alibaba’s main source of advertising revenue, an eBay-like platform on which small merchants and individuals hawk anything from TVs to cars. It’s unclear what sort of violations the regulator was referring to: illicit substances could run the gamut from drugs and pornography to unauthorized DVDs or games. In response to queries about the regulator’s notice, Alibaba said it will continue to enforce its policy of barring illegal products.

“Taobao forbids the listing or sale of any products that are forbidden by applicable law,” Alibaba said in an emailed statement. “We screen and remove product listings from third-party sellers which violate our marketplace rules.”

The watchdog also took aim at Shenzhen-listed Hithink Royalflush Information Network Co. in its statement, saying the financial information and trading service carried harmful and vulgar content. Calls and an email to Hithink Royalflush’s website unit went unanswered.

— With assistance by Yuan Gao

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