China targets Alibaba’s Taobao, other e-commerce sites, in VPN crackdown

Alibaba Group was found by the Cyberspace Administration of China to be carrying illicit content, substances and VPN tools, and has been told to fix the problem immediately.
Alibaba Group was found by the Cyberspace Administration of China to be carrying illicit content, substances and VPN tools, and has been told to fix the problem immediately.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's top cyber space regulators have warned Alibaba Group Holding and other online services against carrying illicit content, substances and tools to help users circumvent the nation's Internet content barriers.

The Cyberspace Administration of China on Thursday (Aug 17) singled out five services, including Alibaba's Taobao Internet bazaar, for criticism, and ordered them to rectify their problems immediately.

Responding to user reports, the agency said it discovered "controlled substances" as well as illegal virtual private network (VPN) tools - used to access foreign websites - for sale on Taobao, the regulator's Zhejiang branch said in a post on its WeChat account.

The latest decree comes as China increases pressure in the domestic arena in the run-up to an important Communist Party Congress later this year, which is expected to consolidate President Xi Jinping's authority.

Intent on muzzling potential sources of disruptive information, the government has shut live-streaming services and websites, tightened regulations governing VPNs, and issued repeated warnings about the need to clean up content through various agencies. Observers say the enhanced scrutiny is also characteristic of Mr Xi's administration.

Last week, the online watchdog declared an investigation into reports of multiple content violations at news services run by Tencent Holdings, Baidu  and Weibo. All three later said they would cooperate with the probe and remove objectionable content.

Earlier, the government - escalating a crackdown that began early this year - moved in July to stop individuals from using VPNs, one of the few remaining cracks in the so-called "Great Firewall" that prevents access to banned websites, from Twitter to Google.

Taobao is the country's largest online marketplace and Alibaba's main source of advertising revenue, an eBay-like platform on which small merchants and individuals hawk anything from TVs to cars.

It is unclear what sort of violations the regulator was referring to. Illicit substances could run the gamut from drugs and pornography to unauthorised DVDs or games.