News Repub­lic app cen­sored sto­ries on top­ics sen­si­tive to China

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By Margi Mur­phy in San Fran­cisco

A POP­U­LAR English lan­guage news app now owned by Chi­nese so­cial me­dia com­pany Tik­Tok was cen­sor­ing sto­ries about Ti­bet and the Dalai Lama, both of which are not recog­nised by the rul­ing com­mu­nist party in China.

News Repub­lic, which was abruptly shut­tered in English-speak­ing mar­kets in May, had a black­list of top­ics that its al­go­rith­mic news ag­gre­ga­tor was prohibited from shar­ing, ac­cord­ing to claims made by a source who asked to re­main anony­mous. The app, which was down­loaded by 5mil­lion peo­ple in the US and UK since 2014, rec­om­mends head­lines based on in­ter­ests of users.

It also takes ac­count of news they have read and what users with sim­i­lar read­ing habits pick. Founded in France, where it still op­er­ates, it was bought in 2016 by Chee­tah Mo­bile, a Chi­nese soft­ware gi­ant, af­ter win­ning a bid­ding war against ByteDance.

News Repub­lic was told to set up a fil­ter re­mov­ing ar­ti­cles with slang and of­fen­sive lan­guage as well as words like

“free­dom of the press”, “Ti­bet” and “Dalai Lama”, the source claimed. ByteDance, Tik­Tok’s par­ent com­pany, even­tu­ally bought News Repub­lic for a re­ported $86m in 2017.

Tik­Tok did not con­firm whether it was aware of the black­list when it bought News Repub­lic, which part- nered with a num­ber of news or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Sky, The Tele­graph, The

Guardian, the BBC, CNN and USA To­day. A ByteDance spokesman said: “The pe­riod in ques­tion was prior to our ac­qui­si­tion of News Repub­lic from

Chee­tah Mo­bile, and the al­leged poli­cies do not in any way re­flect those af­ter the ac­qui­si­tion.”

ByteDance is cur­rently in crunch talks over a sale to Mi­crosoft, Or­a­cle and nu­mer­ous Amer­i­can in­vestors af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ened that it would be banned if it re­mained wholly Chi­nese owned.

Washington has re­peat­edly claimed ByteDance, Huawei and other Chi­nese com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in the US pose a na­tional se­cu­rity risk be­cause of a law in­tro­duced in China in 2017 that ob­li­gates Chi­nese com­pa­nies to sup­port and work with the coun­try’s na­tional in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. ByteDance said it plans to file a law­suit in re­tal­i­a­tion.

ByteDance ad­mit­ted to cen­sor­ing

say LED lights suck up a lot of en­ergy and their sus­tain­abil­ity cre­den­tials are not fool­proof.

Lloyd-Jones re­torts: “It’s a lazy ar­gu­ment against ver­ti­cal farm­ing. Yes, it needs a lot of en­ergy, but you can use your renewable en­ergy. What’s the real en­ergy cost when you are us­ing a trac­tor, are hav­ing em­ploy­ees drive to a farm and us­ing heavy ma­chin­ery, and putting pro­duce into big lor­ries and fly­ing it all over the world?”

Ver­ti­cal farms are also rel­a­tively lim­ited in terms of what they can grow. It is not prac­ti­cal to grow tall trees, which take up a lot of space and time to ma­ture, nor to cul­ti­vate com­modi­ties such as bulk grains or ce­re­als with wafer-thin profit mar­gins.

“I don’t fore­see a time where you are go­ing to grow pota­toes in ver­ti­cal farms,” says Ste­wart McGuire, a for­mer Credit Suisse an­a­lyst who now runs Ocado’s ven­tures business.

“The value in ver­ti­cal farm­ing is when you have a crop that is es­pe­cially valu­able on a per kilo­gram ba­sis like le­mon grass and basil where the ma­jor­ity of the plant cre­ated is ed­i­ble. You don’t eat the tree of the ap­ple tree.”

Ocado ploughed £17m in ver­ti­cal farm­ing last year. It in­vested in both Lloyd-Jones’s JFC, plus a joint ven­ture with a Dutch firm that pro­vides cli­mate con­trol tech­nol­ogy along­side an Amer­i­can ver­ti­cal farm business.

“We want to have a bit more flex­i­bil­ity across the whole sec­tor,” says McGuire. “Hav­ing a farm [JFC] al­ready at scale elim­i­nates some of the pit­falls of just try­ing to rely on what might seem an in­ter­est­ing

Tik­Tok videos that men­tioned Tianan­men Square, Ti­betan in­de­pen­dence and the banned re­li­gious group Falun Gong, up un­til May. It has since changed this pol­icy.

New York-listed Chee­tah Mo­bile is most well known in the west for an app named Clean Mas­ter, which was banned from the An­droid Play Store in Fe­bru­ary in a wider crack­down on “dis­rup­tive” mo­bile ad­ver­tis­ing and fraud. It was not avail­able for com­ment. News Repub­lic is now wholly owned by Tik­Tok UK.

tech­nol­ogy.” Ocado thinks it can use ver­ti­cal farm­ing to its ad­van­tage af­ter it largely an­tic­i­pated the shift to on­line gro­cery shop­ping. It has am­bi­tions to sell ver­ti­cal farm­ing to other re­tail­ers across the world.

“To­gether we could have a sys­tem that is highly au­to­mated, highly ef­fi­cient and fully in­te­grated that peo­ple could use,” says McGuire. “It should be built and op­er­ated by peo­ple who just wanted to op­er­ate them as op­posed to peo­ple who are ei­ther farm­ers or in ver­ti­cal farm­ing.”

The on­line gro­cer’s chief ex­ec­u­tive also be­lieves ver­ti­cal farms could be built next to its de­pots, es­pe­cially the mini ones that serve its speedy de­liv­ery ser­vice Zoom, to de­liver fresh in­gre­di­ents.

Ocado’s in­vest­ment adds cred­i­bil­ity to a sec­tor that has al­ready been lit­tered with collapses. The units them­selves re­quire rel­a­tively high up­front in­vest­ment. Then there is the cost of se­cur­ing the land, be it ur­ban or in the coun­try­side, which could be fi­nan­cially ru­inous if farms do not sell enough goods.

McGuire says: “It’s a fairly nascent in­dus­try, the win­ners and losers are not un­der­stood yet.”

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