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Chinese authorities put the brakes on a surge in live streaming

BEIJING >> It’s becoming a common refrain.

A new social networking technology takes China by storm. Its users outsmart the censors, ushering in an era of relative freedom. And then, almost inevitably, the Communist Party begins to feel threatened and shuts it down.

Thus is the story of live-streaming apps. In China, they’re largely an anodyne form of entertainment for lonely millennials. They’re also massive business. More than 344 million people — about half of China’s internet users — have used at least one of China’s approximately 150 live-streaming apps. Last year, these apps earned more than $4.3 billion.

But this month, authorities brought the ax down. Last week, China’s media regulator ordered three major Chinese internet platforms to halt their video and audio streaming services, raising users’ ire and signaling a new phase of the party’s drive to consolidate control over the internet.

“Most of the audiovisual content did not accord with national regulations or the political situation of the times, and its social commentary was propagating negative speech,” said the media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, in a single-sentence edict. The three services — Sina Weibo, IFeng and ACFUN — lacked proper live-streaming licenses, it said.

“Many live-streaming media companies will suffer from this ban,” said Chen He Di, 27, an online gaming blogger and live streamer with more than 200,000 followers on Weibo. “For live streamers, this is devastating, because it could cut off their main — or even only — source of income.”

“I admit that a small proportion of live-streaming content is inappropriate and needs to be supervised,” he said. “But it’s only very tiny proportion.”

The ban is in many ways ambiguous. Its timing, and the exact reasons for the government action, remain unclear. Weibo’s video content, for example, is hosted by the company Yixia Technology, which does hold a proper license; several live streams on the platform remain uninterrupted. Weibo also has a partnership with the National Football League to stream games.

Authorities may worry about the medium itself, which is more difficult to censor than static text.

“Anything live, the government is frightened by — anything they can’t control,” said Stanley Rosen, a political science professor and China expert at USC. “By the time they crack down, the damage is done.”

Although scores of live-streaming sites are still functioning, the ban could prove highly damaging to the three companies singled out by authorities. Weibo’s stock lost 6.1 percent of its value after the ban, knocking $1 billion off of the company’s market capitalization.

The Twitter-like microblog reached stratospheric heights of popularity in 2011 and 2012 as users reveled in its relatively freewheeling political conversations. Yet the Communist Party considered the online forum a hotbed of dissent and in 2013 stifled it with a raft of regulations. (Some functions on WeChat, Tencent’s massively popular chat app, have suffered similar blows in recent years).

Last year, Weibo began to promote live-streaming capabilities, spurring renewed interest in the platform. In February, the company, valued at $11.3 billion, surpassed Twitter’s market capitalization.

After last week’s ban, Weibo users will need to apply for a license to live stream, the company said in a statement. Weibo vowed to “thoroughly cooperate with relevant state regulations.”

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