China’s Censor vs. World’s Largest Video Host

Today, Chinese video sharing service Tudou.com, which claims to stream nearly five times as much video as YouTube, fell victim to an intense power struggle in the Chinese bureaucracy. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT) has asked Tudou to cease operations, according to several well-informed bloggers. This is the latest move in SARFT’s ongoing quest to claim jurisdiction over an important part of China’s Internet.

Last year China’s censor for audio-visual media issued an order claiming (mostly privately owned) full ownership over all China-based video host ventures. It wasn’t the first time SARFT tried to expand beyond its traditional beat, but previous efforts all failed. In February (days after that regulation officially took effect) SARFT announced it would grandfather existing operations — reducing the ban on privately owned video hosts to newcomers, in an industry that already suffers from huge overcapacity.

Meanwhile, in an effort to escape the looming grip of the censor, Tudou had been preparing major partnerships (including with China’s central TV station, CCTV) that would fall under SARFT jurisdiction.

SARFT saw a way to get even: Tudou (which claims it checks all videos before they go online) apparently missed some porn. When this was revealed, CCTV canceled the partnership agreement, which it called “unhealthy.” At that point, SARFT reportedly asked Tudou to shut down. (Since SARFT could not conquer the online video industry through legal measures, it’s now trying to bring it to heel through moral appeals.)

As always in China, this is next step in a cat-and-mouse game. Until now the video hosts, and their often-foreign funders, knew how to escape. The coming weeks will be pivotal for the future of this industry. As of this writing, Tudou.com is still available online.

UPDATE Mar. 20: China’s censor opts to fine Tudou, not shut it down.

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