What If Clubhouse, But With State Censorship, TikTok Owner ByteDance Ponders

What If Clubhouse, But With State Censorship, TikTok Owner ByteDance Ponders
Photo: Greg Baker/AFP, Getty Images

China’s ByteDance, is planning on launching its own version of audio chat app Clubhouse for the Chinese market, Reuters reported on Thursday.

Clubhouse allows users to set up audio chat rooms, and is popular among Silicon Valley types (and a few far-right trolls who have taken advantage of its loose approach to moderation and hang out there with a clique of culture-war venture capitalists.) It was briefly available in China, but after users dared to bring up topics anathema to the Chinese government, including concentration camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, relations with Taiwan, and crackdowns on the independence of Hong Kong, state censors banned the app in early February.

Many people in China nonetheless remain able to access the app using virtual private networks that allow them to bypass government firewalls, according to Bloomberg, though there remains concern Clubhouse’s infrastructure operators in China could still hand over user data.

According to Reuters, at least a dozen apps cloning Clubhouse’s functionality have launched in China since, though generally with the expectation that they will employ more stringent moderation techniques to ensure users don’t buck the party line. There’s already an established market for similar apps in China like Zhiya, a music and video gaming-centric app popular with young people and that employs moderators to listen in on every conversation. ByteDance’s plans are in the early stages, sources told Reuters.

According to the South China Morning Post, ByteDance is also moving aggressively into the mobile gaming space dominated by rival firm Tencent Holdings.

Marco Lai Jinnan, the founder of China-based audio chat app Lizhi, told the SCMP any effort to replicate Clubhouse’s freewheeling environment by a Chinese firm is likely doomed to fail. Any prospective developers would need to make massive concessions to state speech regulators, he said. A firm named Inke built and launched a Clubhouse clone called Duihuaba in little over a week, enlisting chic celebrities like venture capitalists and fashion critics to promote it, but was quickly retracted with little explanation to the media other than that it was incomplete.

“It will be very difficult to create a Clubhouse-like app in China. The form of Clubhouse will most likely be altered in China,” Marco Lai told the SCMP. “The regulatory environments are different, content safety requirements are also quite different. So it’s hard to just replicate its existing form.”

ByteDance isn’t the only company eyeing up Clubhouse and seeing a juicy font of potentially ripoff-able ideas. Twitter, which is rapidly rolling out new features, is rolling out an audio room tool called Spaces. Facebook is also reportedly building its own bastard version of the app.