2018-01-18 05:10:48

The idea that one could make money without leaving the comfort of their own bedroom once seemed improbable — but then came the internet.

Today, one-on-one chat services — voice and video apps rife with innuendo and sexual suggestion, if not blatant pornography — are a rising industry, according to state newspaper Legal Daily. The business model of this new breed of apps doesn’t require chat hosts to have a pretty face, a voluptuous figure, or even a dynamic on-screen presence: As long as they’re adept at conversation, they can earn a steady income.

When Sixth Tone searched “voice chat” in Apple’s Chinese iOS App Store, dozens of results appeared. On one app whose name translates to “Beautiful Voice Hotline,” most of the primarily female hosts had adopted suggestive nicknames, including “Gentle Lips,” “Fairy Taste,” “Obedient Wild Kitten,” and “Dancing Leather Whip.” According to the app, they’ll lull you to sleep, talk you through emotional crises, or cheer you on during a gaming session.

Users of Beautiful Voice Hotline — around 100,000 of whom are logged in at any given time — must purchase “golden coins” to chat with hosts: A set of 100 coins costs 10 yuan ($1.50). The hosts, meanwhile, charge per-minute rates ranging from 8 to 20 coins, which they can redeem for offline currency.

Though these chat apps often market themselves as G-rated platforms, their services extend beyond the bounds of platonic companionship. On one unnamed chat app Legal Daily signed up for using a social media username, six of the 10 hosts the reporter spoke to agreed to “talk dirty,” with two requesting virtual gifts in exchange for the VIP treatment. One host offered the reporter a “naked video chat” for 100 yuan. The reporter did not indicate whether they verified the offers’ authenticity.

According to the latest version of China’s cybersecurity law, which took effect in June 2017, online service providers must require users to register under their real identities. Noncompliant websites can be fined up to half a million yuan. Yet on Beautiful Voice Hotline, users need only provide a phone number — not necessarily one that’s linked to a government-issued ID. And despite the app asking users to upload real headshots, Sixth Tone bypassed the requirement by submitting a photo of braised pork.

Requirements are similarly lax for chat hosts. In speaking with a recruiter for one such chat service, Legal Daily found that the only requirement is a decent command of Mandarin. Beyond that, there are few limitations: Hosts are free to decide their per-minute rates, as well as how they attract users. There is no mention of a minimum age, either for hosts or users.

In February 2015, the Cyberspace Administration of China prohibited online platforms from “disseminating obscenity and pornography” — yet many have managed to stay one step ahead of the law by presenting themselves as innocuous “social apps” without overt references to sexual content. One high-profile exception was in September 2016, when a Beijing court sentenced the CEO of QVOD — whose livestreaming app Kuaibo had cultivated a reputation for unsavory content — to three and a half years in prison.

Late last year, domestic media outlets began ramping up their coverage of illicit apps, leading to several being shut down. In December, Legal Daily reported on a livestreaming platform found to be broadcasting sexual content. That platform can no longer be found online or downloaded via app stores; instead, would-be users must obtain a special download link shared on messaging apps like WeChat and QQ. The article did not include the name of the app, because it has used several — all to evade authorities.

Legal Daily found that erotic chat platforms can be designed in just a few days, at a cost of a few thousand dollars. Experts told the newspaper’s reporter that because of these apps’ sophisticated evasion techniques and the relatively weak penalties for getting caught, mobile pornographic content has proved difficult to stamp out.

Ding Jie, a department director at global business advisory firm FTI Consulting, told Sixth Tone that although the Chinese government has committed to cracking down on online pornography and obscenity, the existence of such material largely depends upon each platform’s sense of civic and social responsibility.

“Some platforms try to attract users or traffic by illegally relying on pornographic content, yet they are destined to be eliminated from the market,” Ding said. “Regardless of the consequences, the managers of these apps are breaking the law.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Xiao Mu/VCG)