Chinese photo agency websites go dark over licence violations

Simone McCarthy

News outlets across China were scrambling for photos after two of the country’s top stock image agencies took their websites down amid licence violations.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said on Tuesday that Visual China Group (VCG) and ImagineChina – also known as IC Photo – did not have the proper information services licences and had not undergone a security assessment before cooperating with overseas entities, “seriously disrupting orderly network communication”.

“[The companies] illegally engaged in internet news and information services and illegally cooperated with overseas enterprises in services involving internet news and information,” the regulator said.

In near-identical statements on their official Weibo accounts, the companies said their websites would be suspended as they carried out “self-inspection” and “rectification”.

The CAC said the companies suspended their websites themselves.

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In a statement from the VCG board of directors published on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange website on Wednesday, the company said it did not yet know the timeline for the re-opening of its website as it "earnestly and actively carries out the content self-inspection".

VCG’s stock price was down 10 per cent by mid-morning on Wednesday.

ImagineChina and VCG are big suppliers of stock photo content produced in China, distributing images from a network of photographers around the country.

ImagineChina is listed as a partner on the website of international news agency Agence France-Presse, while Shenzhen-listed VCG has been an exclusive distributor of content from American visual media company Getty Images, according to a 2016 Getty statement.

In 2016, VCG boosted its international footprint by acquiring Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, one of the world’s biggest photo collections.

Also that year, Chinese tech giant ByteDance, which owns the short video apps TikTok and Douyin as well as China’s popular news app Jinri Toutiao, acquired ImagineChina. Imaginechina’s English-language website was still accessible on Tuesday night.

The loss of the supplies would be felt swiftly, according to David Bandurski, co-director of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.

“These are major content suppliers to commercial clients in China, and presumably a great number of companies are reliant on their services,” he said.

“We know, of course, that control of all information and news content, including images, is viewed by China’s leadership as an imperative for maintaining social and political control. But beyond that, we can’t say clearly at this point whether other motives or interests are at play in this case.”

Internet regulations have tightened in recent years, with online news media an occasional target.

In 2018, four popular Chinese news apps were temporarily removed from the Android store in China after regulators ordered tighten control over the spread of information. Also that year Phoenix New Media’s news portal Ifeng.com was suspended for violating news-sharing rules.

Earlier this year, VCG temporarily suspended website operations amid allegations it had been selling images of the national flag and related symbols, and falsely claiming copyright over the first images of a black hole, which were captured by the Event Horizon Telescope.

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