Beijing is Tearing Down the Digital ‘Walled Gardens’

The Chinese internet is infamously siloed, with a handful of “super apps” each occupying a cushy, protective territory that tries to lock users in and keep rivals out. On Tencent’s WeChat messenger, for instance, links to Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and ByteDance’s Douyin short video service can’t be viewed or even redirected. That’s unlike WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal that offer friendly URL previews within chats.

E-commerce platforms fend off competition in different ways. Taobao uses Alibaba’s affiliate Alipay as a default payments option, omitting its arch rival WeChat Pay. Tencent-backed JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, encourages its users to pay through its own payments system or WeChat Pay.

But changes are underway. “Ensuring normal access to legal URLs is the basic requirement for developing the internet,” a senior official from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said at a press conference this week. He added that unjustified blockages of web links “affect users’ experience, undermine users’ rights, and disrupt market orders.”

There is some merit in filtering third-party links when it comes to keeping out the likes of pornography, misinformation and violent content. Content distributors in China also strictly abide by censorship rules, silencing politically sensitive discussions. These principles will stay in place, and MIIT’s new order is really to crack anticompetitive practices and wane the power of the bloated internet giants.

The call to end digital walled gardens is part of MIIT’s campaign, started in July, to restore “orders” to the Chinese internet. While crackdowns on internet firms are routine, the spate of new policies announced in recent months — from new data security rules to heightened gaming restrictions — signify Beijing’s resolution to curb the influence of Chinese internet firms of all kinds.

The deadline for online platforms to unblock URLs is September 17, the MIIT said earlier. Virtually all the major internet companies have swiftly issued statements saying they will firmly carry out MIIT’s requirements and help promote the healthy development of the Chinese internet.

Internet users are bound to benefit from the dismantling of the walled gardens. They will be able to browse third-party content smoothly on WeChat without having to switch between apps. They can share product links from Taobao right within the messenger instead of having their friends copy-paste a string of cryptic codes that Taobao automatically generates for WeChat sharing. (Source: Yahoo Finance)