China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced on Thursday that Douban (豆瓣), one of the country’s most popular social networking platforms, had been removed from app stores along with 105 other apps, citing “excessive collection of personal information.” The move, which was announced through the MIIT’s WeChat official account, “Gong Xin Wei Bao“ (工信微报), quickly became a hotly discussed topic across Chinese social media.
“Please no, don’t let Douban die,” one user wrote in a comment under the news as reported on Weibo by The Beijing News newspaper. “I have a lot of bookmarks that haven’t been backed up yet.”
“Will Hupu, Zhihu and Baidu Tieba be next?” one seemingly distressed user responded.
Douban, a social networking platform established in 2005, allows users to share reviews of music, books, films and other hobby-related content. The platform’s “group,” or xiaozu (小组), function works as an online community for people who have shared interests in certain celebrities, pop culture trends, films and so on, allowing them to share their thoughts and responses.
Douban has sometimes seemed to be more liberal in its application of controls on user-generated content. A report by the AFP earlier this month showed that while information and discussion about the Peng Shuai case was virtually non-existent inside China, Douban had for a brief period enabled discussion of the case, with a mix of Chinese and English posts managing to survive for a brief time before censors cracked down.
In its announcement, the ministry said it had conducted inspections of apps for violations such as permission requests for users’ personal information that exceed what was necessary for advertised services, and inducing users to download apps through deceptive means. The MIIT said that the first five apps listed, including Douban and the popular karaoke app Changba (唱吧), had not completed “rectification” as required by the ministry, coming into full compliance with the Cybersecurity Law and the Personal Information Protection Law.
The 21st Century Business Herald, a commercial business publication based in Guangzhou, noted two things in particular in this round of regulatory moves taken by the MIIT. First, the removed apps had received notification back in early November that they were in violation of privacy rules but had failed to make the necessary alterations in time for the deadline set by the regulator. Second, the paper noted that the rectification order and removal list included apps operated by both private companies and state-owned enterprises, suggesting that the MIIT was treating SOES and private enterprises equally – which experts quoted by the paper said was unusual.
“This situation is something we don’t see so often,” said Yang Yong (杨勇), an expert from East China University of Political Science and Law, “and it shows an attitude of equal treatment in oversight of private and state-owned enterprises by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.”
Sources told the 21st Century Business Herald that Douban has repeatedly faced fines as a result of its failure to censor user comments within the platform’s private group function in violation of the Cybersecurity Law.
This is certainly not the first time that Douban has been subjected to fines and warnings. According to a December 2, 2021, post by “Wang Xin China“ (网信中国), the official account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on WeChat, Douban has been fined to the tune of 1.5 million RMB for alleged transmission of “illegal content.” Moreover, between January and November of this year, the notice said, Douban had been charged penalties on 20 separate occasions by the CAC, with fines totaling nine million RMB.