BARELY LEGAL

A Chinese internet entrepreneur was sentenced to three years in prison for running a porn site

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

A Beijing court on Tuesday (Sept. 13) sentenced 36-year-old internet entrepreneur Wang Xin to three and a half years in prison and a fine of one million yuan ($150,000). His crime? “Distributing obscene materials for personal gain,” or in other words, providing easy access to pornography online.

The sentence caps a years-long saga that had long captivated Chinese internet users, and also reinforces Beijing’s attempt to monitor the country’s media and entertainment industries.

Wang served as CEO of Kuaibo, which offered video streaming and torrent downloads on the web and through smartphone apps. While Kuaibo (also known as QVOD) did not store any files on its own servers, it directed users to third-party servers which contained content they searched for. At its peak in 2013, Kuaibo had about 25% market share among all video app downloads, more than competitors like Baidu and Youku Tudou.

But Kuaibo was a haven for piracy and porn. In December 2013 a group of internet companies and entertainment companies sued QVOD for $42 million for violating copyrights. In March 2014 the company faced a bigger blow when local police raided its offices in Shenzhen and revoked its media license for spreading “lewd and pornographic content.” The site and apps quickly shut down.

In a court case that took place in January this year, prosecutors argued that Wang was facilitating the distribution of pornography, which has been illegal in China since 1949. Wang counter-argued that his company was merely providing a platform, and that it shouldn’t be held accountable for what people use its technology for.

“The internet is a place where harmful information exists. For every ten million users there will definitely be every kind of obscene sexual content for every user,” Wang argued candidly in his testimony.

Live broadcasts of the court proceedings against Wang and his colleagues drew millions of viewers online, and Wang’s passionate defense of freedom of information on the internet won him many supporters. But his tone changed upon the sentencing. He and his colleagues have pled guilty to all charges, and his public statement rings of the resignation common among China’s disenchanted idealists.

“I would like to apologize to the users of Qvod who we hurt… I hope our case serves as a warning to the industry,” said Wang. Three of his co-executives at Kuaibo must also serve prison sentences and fines.

Online platforms and content creators alike are facing increasing pressure to make sure they don’t upset the standards of good taste set by China’s Communist Party, whether that means toeing a political line or simply keeping entertainment squeaky clean.

In March, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), a governing body that oversees the media industry, issued a sweeping set of rules banning everything from homosexuality to witchcraft on television. In April, authorities forced viral video star Papi Jiang to temporarily take her videos offline after she allegedly used foul language in one of them. The circumstances leading to Kuaibo’s trial differ from that of other instances of censorship, but the message remains the same—the Chinese government will dictate what content is safe for the public, and artists, studios, and online “platforms” must self-censor accordingly.

Internet commenters have flocked to Weibo, a Twitter-esque social media site, to condemn Wang’s sentence.

“I personally believe watching [adult] videos is an individual choice, and it’s also a necessity for some adults. Kids nowadays are learning about sex at an earlier age, and pornography will never disappear completely. The government should consider being more lenient,” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese, registration required).

Many accuse the government of unfairly making an example out of Kuaibo, as Baidu’s cloud service and Xunlei, a popular torrent provider, are also havens for pornography. “All we can say is Kuaibo doesn’t have a strong enough relationship with the government,” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese, registration required).

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