Reddit has raised a $300 million (£233 million) investment round led by a $150 million (£116 million) cash injection from the Chinese tech titan Tencent. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based social media site, valued at $3 billion (£2.3 billion) and ranked as the sixth most popular website in the United States, is still banned in China.
In addition to Tencent, Reddit also raised $150 million from a group of other investors that includes Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia, Fidelity, and Snoop Dogg, reports Reuters.
The news triggered backlash from Reddit users who posted content that is banned by China’s government onto the US-based site. Thousands of viewers saw pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy rally, a protest and subsequent government crackdown that’s famously banned inside China. Other protest posts included pro-Taiwan messages and criticism of Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Many redditors also posted Winnie the Pooh, an unlikely but prominent recent victim of Chinese censorship. Critics of Xi said the head of China’s Communist Party looked like the cartoon bear when he was in negotiations with US President Barack Obama. The comparison birthed thousands of memes and eventually led to an outright national ban.
Tencent is an active and aggressive global investor with over 600 such deals in a diverse set of companies around the world including a handful of American firms that are also banned in China. But Reddit and Tencent are strange bedfellows due to Reddit’s historic reference to freedom of speech as core to its mission while Tencent is one of the most important architects of the Great Firewall of China, the most sophisticated censorship regime in history.
As Adrian Shahbaz, the Research Director for Technology and Democracy at rights watchdog Freedom House, told Gizmodo earlier this month, China’s censorship apparatus is largely misunderstood. It is not, as one might imagine, a “this huge thing the state has built,” Shahbaz said. Instead, it’s companies like Tencent that are “in charge of weeding out unfavourable information online.”
Tencent stands to profit off of Reddit’s success while its own social media brands, including the messenger QQ and the WeChat app, are subject to cutting-edge surveillance and censorship developed by Tencent at the behest of the Beijing government.
Researchers at Canada’s Citizen Lab recently reported on Tencent’s invention of new censorship techniques.
“The algorithms to perform this kind of image filtering are computationally expensive in terms of time and energy,” report author Jeffrey Knockel said. “Performing this type of filtering is the last thing Tencent wants to be wasting money on, but the fact that it does suggests that there is a large amount of pressure Tencent receives from the Chinese government to implement it.”
Featured image: Cody Glenn (Flickr)