Police bust PR companies for illegal deletion of news and social media postings

On December 5, the People’s Daily published a report about a police investigation into companies that offer services to delete news items and social media postings from the Internet.

The article does not, of course, mention that the biggest deleter of information from the Internet is the government itself and that because of censorship and self-censorship, deleting news articles and social media posts is entirely natural behavior for editors and other staff of Chinese Internet companies.

Nonetheless, it’s worth a read to get a sense of how filthy the Internet PR business is in China. And to permit ourselves some self-promotion, paid deletion and spam are key reasons that why Danwei’s social media tracking and media monitoring services do not rely only on automated, technical solutions and always have experienced human editors checking all of our findings.

The original Chinese report is here, below is a translation.

China’s biggest case of illegal operations by Internet PR company cracked

Charging fees from clients and bribing website administrators: Recently, Bejing police discovered a website that provides illegal services with unlawful revenues exceeding 10 million yuan, making it the largest Internet PR company on record that has engaged in illegal activities since the Supreme Court released the latest interpretation regarding Internet crimes.

Recently, in the nationwide campaign against organized online rumor mongering and other Internet crimes, Beijing police discovered that six PR companies including Beijing Koubei Interactive Marketing (北京口碑互动营销策划有限公司) have engaged in paid information deletion and other illegal activities. Under the unified directions of the Ministry of Public Security, police authorities of more than ten provinces made scores of arrests, with 10 million yuan of illegal revenues seized.

The cost of deleting a post ranges from a few hundreds to more than twenty thousand yuan. Big corporate clients usually pay annual fees for such services.

Koubei, founded in 2007, was relatively well known in the Internet PR world. Its revenue mainly come from media monitoring, brand image maintenance and Internet marketing. The company has almost 50 clients, which are mostly well-known large companies and listed companies with annual revenues exceeding 70 million yuan.

According to Li Dong, deputy chief of Beijing police, Koubei uses Internet image marketing as a disguise, bribing related parties to provide paid information deletion service.

According to the police, Koubei has a PR department, social media department, media-monitoring department and a customer relations department. The PR and social media departments are directly involved in deleting negative information from news portals and Internet forums. If they found negative information concerning their clients, they would send an alert to the client and let them decide whether to pay to remove the information.

The company priced its services according to the amount of effort required to remove the articles with prices ranging from a few hundred yuan to just under three thousand yuan. A Mr Yang, the PR manager said: “In addition, some big companies usually pay a monthly and annual fee to monitor, release information and delete negative information.”

According to Mr. Li [a different person from Li Dong], a Koubei employee, the company set up a QQ account for every employee, and gave them contact info for many employees of news websites. When a project commences, the responsible person would contact the editors of the websites. “Once the removal of a post is confirmed, the company will send money to the person [at the website] who did it.” Li then said: “Sometimes when the contact can’t be reached, we would post a message on the QQ group, then some third party agent would take care of it.”

Deleting Internet posts, making pocket money, website editors become a key link in the interest chain

According to Li Dong, “this year after the Supreme People’s Court issued an interpretation on Internet crimes, Koubei held special meetings to discuss countermeasures. Some contracts were revised, with the clause about “deleting negative information for customers” being rewritten to hide the the nature of the service. Yet the illegal activity did not stop.

Meanwhile, in order to reduce risks, Koubei specified that all deletion should be done by third party agencies. According to the police investigation, during the period between January and September this year, Koubei paid 470,000 yuan to such agencies.

Among them, Mi Le (pseudonym) is one of the contacts that Koubei made regular contacts. “If there were no PR companies like Koubei, or corrupt website editors, we agents would never be able to make money.” Mi Le said that he had been commissioned by Koubei scores of times. Each time, he was paid 200 to 1000 yuan.

According to the police, one of Mi Le’s contacts is a Mr Zhao, who is an Internet engineer at Eastday.com. “Deleting posts is part of my day job. Aside from deletion required by the company, I also takes requests from friends like Mi Le and I make some pocket money.” Said Zhao.

“We don’t delete popular posts, or those that have received large amount of clicks, or those that appeared on prominent locations as those are too risky.” Armed with this form of self-protection, Zhao and Mi Le worked together for two years. “Each piece of information cost 200 yuan and sometimes I would earn more than my salary if I deleted enough posts.”

According to the police investigation, Koubei and other companies rely on website administrators that have the power to delete posts to conduct their illegal activities. So far scores of websites have been found to have engaged in such activities. Some of them are influential mainstream websites. Some employees of the such websites have become a key link in the criminal interest chain.

Justified deletions have legal channels: companies need to strengthen management to resist temptations

The reporter learned from Beijing police that at the moment, some involved in the crime have already been put under detention for the crime of illegal business operations, bribing non-government employees, and the crime of acceptance of bribes of non-governmental employees. 19 suspects have been arrested.

“Never count on your luck. No matter how many companies are involved, how much business you have, breaking the law will have great impact on the company,” said Mr. Yang, president of Koubei, “All companies should have a clear idea of what they should do and what they shouldn’t. They also have to renew their knowledge about new laws and regulations.”

As the one who is directly responsible for the company’s paid deletion line of business, PR director Mr. Yang said “I hope I will never do this again. It does no good to anyone and nobody should do anything illegal.”

“Everyday, many people came to us asking if we can help delete some posts. The offers were so tempting that we gave up our principles,” Confessed Mr. Zhao. He also said that there were legal means to delete posts, and that all websites have specialized people to deal with legitimate complaints. If a post infringes on someone’s legal interests, the infringed party can contact the website’s customer service and provide evidence (to support the request to delete it).

As regards PR companies, agencies and website employees conspiring in crimes, the police suggest that on one hand, websites should have smooth channels of communication with clients; on the other hand, websites should strengthen the self-discipline of editors.

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