China Clamps Down on Internet as It Seeks to Stamp Out Covid Protests

Online regulators tell big tech companies to expand censorship of information on demonstrations and take steps to curb the virtual private networks used to bypass online controls

SINGAPORE—China’s internet watchdog instructed tech companies to expand censorship of protests and moved to curb access to virtual private networks this week, as a government clampdown succeeds in keeping most protesters off the streets after nationwide demonstrations erupted over the weekend against the country’s strict Covid policies.

The Cyberspace Administration of China issued guidance to companies on Tuesday, including Tencent Holdings Ltd. and ByteDance Ltd., the Chinese owner of short video apps TikTok and Douyin, asking them to add more staff to internet censorship teams, according to people familiar with the matter. The companies were also asked to pay more attention to content related to the protests, particularly any information being shared about demonstrations at Chinese universities and a fire in the western Xinjiang region that triggered the nationwide backlash over Covid policies.

The directives were issued following an internal meeting at the internet regulator, where officials were also told to ask Chinese search engines, e-commerce companies and internet content platforms to conduct a fresh sweep to remove sales postings and information about how to use virtual private networks, also known as VPNs, according to people familiar with the matter. The regulator also asked officials to get companies to prevent searches related to VPNs, which were used by protesters and their supporters to circulate videos of the recent demonstrations, the people said.

The Cyberspace Administration of China and ByteDance didn’t respond to requests for comment. Tencent declined to comment. Protesters took to the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities across China over the weekend calling for an end to the country’s zero-tolerance Covid policies, in a rare display of widespread defiance against the government.

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