Microblogging platform Weibo on Thursday challenged a popular news-aggregating app over access to content shared by its users — a valuable digital asset. A post by one of Weibo’s official accounts accused a “third-party news platform” of republishing content generated by Weibo users without obtaining permission from the company.
Although Weibo, which is owned by tech giant Sina, did not name the news platform, the post included a screenshot of a notification from Toutiao, one of China’s most valuable tech companies. The screenshot shows that Toutiao recently asked net users with accounts on both platforms to authorize the aggregator app to automatically republish articles the users first posted on Weibo.
The microblog site argues that without having received express consent to recycle user content, Toutiao is guilty of unfair competition. As punishment, Weibo has temporarily severed Toutiao’s access to its service.
For its part, Toutiao contends that it only republishes content from users who opt in, according to a statement sent to Sixth Tone. “We believe that anything posted by users [on Weibo] belongs to the users themselves,” the statement read. “They can say yes, and they can also cancel [later].”
Whether Toutiao has violated the rules of competition depends on several factors, Zhao Zhanling, a copyright lawyer at Zhilin Law Firm in Beijing, told Sixth Tone. To republish copyrighted content, Toutiao only needs authorization from users, Zhao explained. But even with this permission, he added, Toutiao cannot use an algorithm to circumvent Weibo’s technology barrier, meaning the company should legally only be allowed to republish content by manually copying and pasting.
Content that is not protected by copyright belongs to both Weibo and its users, Zhao said, so to gain access to this content, Toutiao would need to have received prior permission from Weibo.
In its statement, Toutiao points the finger back at Weibo’s parent company, arguing that Sina has long engaged in similar behavior by transferring content from other websites — such as MSN, Sohu, and NetEase — without authorization.
“There is no specific rule pertaining to such behavior at present,” You Yunting, an intellectual property rights lawyer at DeBund Law Offices in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “But this doesn’t mean that if Sina did it, Toutiao can do it, too. If Sina was wrong, and Toutiao followed suit, then they are wrong as well.”
This is not the first time Chinese tech companies have quarreled over user data and content. In January, Weibo won a lawsuit against business blogging platform Maimai, which had been collecting more information from Weibo users than the two companies had agreed upon.
And the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that internet giant Tencent had accused smartphone maker Huawei of collecting data from Tencent’s messaging app, WeChat, thereby violating the privacy of WeChat users.
China’s biggest e-commerce platforms and delivery companies, too, have found themselves in a series of standoffs over user information in recent months. Courier firm SF Express in June claimed that Cainiao, an Alibaba logistics affiliate, removed it as a shipping option and blocked its access to the logistics platform over a disagreement about how they would share user data. A similar conflict broke out between e-commerce website JD.com and TTK Express a month later, although JD.com argued that it ended the partnership because of the courier company’s poor service.
Weibo’s value depends on content created by its mammoth user base, in which the company has invested significant resources. “To build a successful business model, it generally takes time and effort to develop technological know-how, guide users, cultivate new customer behavior, and so on,” said You, the Shanghai lawyer. “If Toutiao just takes content claiming the mandate of user consent, this kind of behavior will not encourage business innovation.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A magnifying lens is used to view information displayed on Toutiao’s Weibo page, June 4, 2014. Li Shengli/IC)