China is considering asking media companies from Tencent Holdings Ltd (騰訊) to ByteDance Ltd (字節跳動) to let rivals access and display their content in search results, a move that could further eradicate online barriers and shake up the Internet advertising arena.
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is debating rules to make hundreds of millions of articles on Tencent’s WeChat (微信) messaging app available via search engines such as that run by Baidu Inc (百度), people familiar with the matter said.
It is also considering making short videos from ByteDance’s Douyin (抖音) — TikTok’s Chinese cousin — show up in searches, one of the people said.
Regulators are asking companies for feedback and it is unclear whether they would go ahead, they said.
If implemented, the policy would mark a significant advance in Beijing’s campaign to break down barriers among China’s Internet giants, especially Tencent and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴).
The watchdog has already warned technology companies to open their so-called “walled gardens” by allowing links to rival services, part of a broader push to root out illegal activity across the world’s largest Internet arena.
Forcing ByteDance or Tencent to allow Baidu and other rivals to display their social media content in Internet searches would be unprecedented.
It could divert advertising revenue away from services such as WeChat or Douyin toward search engines such as Baidu. The process would be tantamount to US regulators requiring Facebook Inc to open up public posts on WhatsApp to Google searches, for instance, if the US messaging service supported public-facing accounts.
A Tencent spokesperson declined to comment, while representatives for ByteDance and Baidu did not respond to requests for comment.
The ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
There is no guarantee that the ministry would proceed with the envisioned regulations, given its area of coverage overlaps with other powerful agencies such as the Cyberspace Administration of China and the State Administration of Market Regulation, which extracted billions of fines from Alibaba and Meituan (美團) for market abuse.
All are under pressure to heed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) call to clean up the Internet, get the biggest players to share the wealth and help mold a generation of productive young people by fighting online addiction.
Chinese Minister of Industry and Information Technology Xiao Yaqing (肖亞慶) told the People’s Daily in an interview that his ministry would strengthen supervision of the Internet industry as it pursues a six-month cleanup campaign.
The ministry has been the primary driver in the broader effort to root out online monopolies around content, while the Cyberspace Administration of China has focused on security and privacy issues.
The ministry’s deliberations center on WeChat’s public accounts, which let individuals and businesses publish articles on everything from movies to soccer and foreign policy. That massive content library is now blocked from search engines operated by the likes of Baidu and ByteDance.
Articles on WeChat now surface only on the app’s native search function or on smaller engine Sogou (搜狗), controlled by Tencent.
To compete, Baidu launched its own publishers’ platform Baijiahao (百家號) in 2016, filling in content so its core search service is still relevant in the mobile era.
Tencent is not alone in restraining search services. In 2008, Alibaba’s Taobao (淘寶) online mall blocked Baidu searches in a move that it said was intended to protect consumers.
That has helped Alibaba dominate online marketing, as merchants cut down their ad spending with Baidu to focus on online shopping.
It is unclear if the ministry also intends to unblock Taobao listings or other content, the people said.
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