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2018-06-04 13:21:36

The simmering spat between internet giants Tencent and ByteDance seems ready to boil over.

On grounds of unfair competition, Tencent, which operates messaging apps WeChat and QQ, announced on Friday that it was suing ByteDance and one of its affiliates for 1 yuan ($0.16) and a public apology. The next day, ByteDance countered that it had already filed its own unfair competition suit against Tencent, demanding 90 million yuan for economic losses and an apology that would remain posted online for 100 days. A Beijing court accepted both cases on Friday.

ByteDance is one of China’s fastest-growing tech startups. It owns short video app Douyin — marketed abroad as Tik Tok — and content aggregator Jinri Toutiao, which partners with BuzzFeed. But the company’s feud with Tencent has escalated in the last month with a string of barbs exchanged in public.

In early May, as Douyin celebrated becoming the world’s most downloaded non-game app for iOS, ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming exchanged words with Tencent CEO Pony Ma on the latter’s own social platform, messaging app WeChat, according to a screenshot circulated online. (The two tech tycoons are — or at least were — WeChat friends.) Specifically, Zhang complained that WeChat was blocking video-sharing links from Douyin in order to give a leg up to Tencent’s own competing short video app, Weishi. Ma promptly retorted that Zhang’s words verged on defamation.

Then on May 17, Beijing’s Haidian District court announced that it had accepted a defamation lawsuit in which Douyin sought 1 million yuan in damages from Tencent because of a WeChat article that suggested some Douyin videos endangered children.

The very next day — International Museum Day — Douyin again complained that WeChat was blocking access to its viral multimedia project in which museum exhibits come to life at night to perform some of the viral dance moves popularized by Douyin videos. WeChat responded that the project contained a prohibited pop-up that asked users to spread the word to their contacts.

In China, public squabbles between internet companies make headlines from time to time. Beginning in 2010, Tencent and internet security company Qihoo 360 engaged in a high-profile feud that lasted four years. And prior to its spat with Tencent, ByteDance in January sued Baidu, the company behind China’s most popular search engine, for unfair competition.

Zhao Zhanling, a Beijing-based lawyer who specializes in commercial law, told Sixth Tone that it’s highly likely that both Tencent and ByteDance are guilty of acts that constitute unfair competition. However, Zhao is skeptical of ByteDance’s chances of being awarded the 90 million yuan it’s seeking.

“On one hand, it’s possible that [ByteDance] really does believe Tencent has affected its business through fake articles and blocking [content],” said Zhao, who has examined the charges made public by ByteDance. “On the other hand, it may just be seeking publicity.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Tencent’s company headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, May 16, 2018. Zhao Zhouxian/IC)