Can News Break, which is highly sought after in the U.S., be free from Chinese government control?

News Break, the U.S.-based news and information platform founded by China’s “BitInfo” founder Zheng Zhaohui, has become popular in the United States in recent years, but while its download rate has skyrocketed, News Break’s connection to Zheng has raised concerns among observers about whether it could be controlled by the Chinese government. News Break told VOA that they are a U.S.-founded, U.S.-invested company that complies with U.S. data security and privacy-related regulations.

President Biden on Wednesday (June 9) reversed a Trump-era ban on Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, while calling for an assessment of the security risks posed by apps from foreign rivals such as China. News Break, which has been a prominent performer in recent years, has attracted attention within the United States.

The fledgling app beats the big boys

News Break was launched in 2015 by Particle Media, a Silicon Valley-based company founded by Zheng Zhaohui, the founder of One Point News, and is known as the U.S. version of Headline Today. It is a small and insignificant player compared with traditional American news media. But since its creation it has gained traction, with News Break repeatedly ranking as the No. 1 free news app for iPhone on the U.S. App Store since January 2019, ahead of The New York Times, BBC and Google News, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile app data analytics firm. In 2020, it was downloaded more than 23 million times. And this week, it held steady at No. 3.

While News Break also delivers national and international news, its slogan is “Local Everything,” promising to “restore the local news ecosystem” and branding itself as the nation’s No. 1 smart local news platform. It delivers news algorithmically, selecting articles based on readers’ browsing history, and is an AI-powered news engine based on readers’ interests.

Its website states that News Break’s mission is “to connect and empower local users, local content creators and local businesses to help people around the world live safer, more vibrant and truly connected lives. By building strong partnerships with thousands of local publishers and businesses across the country, News Break’s priority is to help a new generation of readers find and interact with locally published content and information that matters.”

Emphasis on U.S. capital, U.S. operations, and compliance with data security regulations

Unlike mobile apps created by Chinese, including TikTok and WeChat, News Break emphasizes that it is a U.S.-founded, U.S.-invested company.

In a response to Voice of America, Greg Vederman, the company’s vice president of brand marketing, said.

“News Break is an American company, a fast-growing startup in Silicon Valley …… Our Chairman of the Board is former Microsoft executive Harry Shum. Zhiyuan Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo, is our chief advisor. Chao-Hui Cheng, Harry Schum and Jerry Yang are all American immigrants who together built this U.S. company, which now employs nearly 200 people in the United States. …… All U.S. customer data is hosted on Amazon Web Services servers in the United States, and we comply with all U.S. data security and privacy laws.”

Wideman also highlighted that the company’s recently raised Series C funding was led by U.S. investment firm Francisco Partners.

Rikkonen: It’s not impossible for Beijing to step in if it wants to

But some experts say it’s not entirely impossible for the Chinese government to pressure Particle Media to try to take control of the app.

Ainikki Riikonen, a research associate in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told the Voice of America that when looking at whether a company is influenced by the Chinese government, it’s important to consider not only where the company is based, where employees work and who the investors are, but also who is interacting with the company and the means to influence it. means.

So when it comes to China influence, she says, “what immediately comes to mind is legal and regulatory, looking at the extent to which the company can or cannot refuse government requests, but also looking at financial factors such as market access (market access).”

News Break is certainly not immune to Chinese pressure if investors and capital infusions are also taken into account, Rikkonen said.

Bryce Barros is a China analyst for the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Defense of Democracies. In an email response to Voice of America, he said the likelihood of News Break being influenced or de facto controlled by the Chinese government or a Chinese Communist entity depends on Particle Media’s ownership.

In the past, Phoenix New Media, a Hong Kong media group with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, owned a large stake (not a majority) in Particle Media,” he said. Now Phoenix New Media’s ownership is much smaller. However, if ownership expands significantly again, then yes, this does open the door to possible influence by China and the CCP.”

Unlike the U.S. branches of China’s official media, such as CGTN and People’s Daily Overseas, which focus on international news and news involving the entire U.S., News Break focuses on local news around its audience. Rikkonen sees the potential for the Chinese government to “tell the China story” overseas through News Break by influencing the American public on a more personal level.

I definitely see why the Chinese government might have reason to wonder, is there a way to influence the algorithm in one way or another? Are there certain types of local news that might lead to mistrust between Americans and government agencies? There’s certainly a risk here, but I think the situation remains to be seen.”

How should the U.S. government and media view News Break?

Ruth White says the U.S. government needs to do more scrutiny of apps like News Break.

“The rapid growth of apps like News Break shows the urgent need for more legislation in the U.S. at the national level to clarify the importance of beneficial ownership,” he said. “It is very common for some large private Chinese companies to have beneficial ownership in overseas jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands or British Virgin Islands through Hong Kong, and allows them to have potentially opaque ties to the Chinese government and the Communist Party.”

The fledgling News Break is more popular than traditional U.S. media and online media, and Bai Rushi said such success underscores that China’s domestic technology industry is becoming more innovative and that the U.S. government needs to think about how to develop policies that promote more innovation in the United States itself.

What U.S. news media and platforms should learn from News Break’s popularity is that audiences across the United States are still hungry for their local news, he said. So the key is to invest more in local news media, publications and apps.

But he stressed, “Make sure they have a clear ownership structure and are not tied to individuals or entities with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government.”

For his part, Rikkonen argued that the phenomenon should serve as a wake-up call to traditional U.S. media and rebuild the American public’s trust in them.

“Americans are naturally willing to question, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But I certainly hope the relationship between the American media and the public improves. I think people go to another news source just because it confirms your point of view, and that can be a bad thing. That said, I think at the end of the day, it’s important to have analytical tools to be able to look at a story, evaluate the source, assess its credibility and then compare it to other news,” Rikkonen said.