Top watchdog censures China’s biggest stock photo platform amid public outrage

2 min read
First image of a black hole (Image credit: European Southern Observatory).

China’s top regulatory agencies publicly rebuked stock photo agency Visual China after it claimed the copyright for the first photo of a black hole, an image released on Wednesday that commanded headlines across the globe.

Beijing-based Visual China Group (VCG) watermarked the now-famous image and claimed it held the copyright, sparking outrage from millions of netizens on Chinese social media.

VCG later apologized via Weibo early Friday, after Chinese tech companies including Baidu and Tencent joined the chorus of protest. Company logos and photos were among images for which VCG claimed the copyright. China’s Communist Youth League (CYL), the youth wing of the country’s ruling party, questioned on Weibo why the images of China’s National Flag and National Emblem were also watermarked on its platform.

On Weibo, the “Visual China apologizes” topic topped the most-read list on early Friday with more than  250 million views, according to Reuters, before it was removed by Weibo later that day.

Dubbed the “Getty of China,” VCG was the country’s largest stock image provider, with over 40 million editorial images and 1.25 million videos with its titles, according to its website.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), which owns the image’s original copyright and allows for reprint with credit, later told Chinese media that it was “never contacted” by the company regarding the issue. VCG’s position is “untenable from a legal perspective,” (our translation) ESO stated.

Government scrutiny soon followed the internet backlash. “We have seen the adverse effects from VCG disseminating sensitive information and disturbing public order,” (our translation) the Tianjin office of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in an announcement released Friday. The agency’s website has been temporarily shut down for “a thorough rectification,” after local regulators found “serious problems” on its platform.

In an announcement released via WeChat, the National Copyright Administration warned local photo agencies to ensure compliance on their platforms, with plans to “perfect laws and regulations” in response to public outrage.

The Chinese government is tightening regulatory control on the country’s cyberspace community, targeting content it deems as “lowbrow,” data breaches, and fraudulent activities. VCG’s peers are also being scrutinized: Chinese media reported that photo agency Quanjing even watermarked images of former Chinese leaders, including those of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, with a price tag.