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Chinese tech giants hand over algorithms as Beijing tightens internet controls

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Michel Temer/Flickr)
August 21, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Dozens of technology companies have submitted their proprietary algorithms to China’s internet regulator in recent weeks, including Alibaba, Tencent and Weibo, according to official documents.

The move comes after the Cyberspace Administration ordered the firms to submit the algorithms that crunch user data to push tailor-made content and advertising to individuals, banning algorithms that are designed to make users spend large amounts of money, or “disrupt public order.”

Thirty companies appear on a list of recent submissions, according to a document published on the agency’s website, including NetEase, Weibo, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba.

The list includes algorithms used for hot searches, pushing tailor-made recommendations to individuals, news searches, and to calculate the “security risk” of user-generated content, which is a potential threat to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s “public opinion management” system that aims to keep online content in line with its propaganda.

The move is unprecedented, as global tech companies typically decline to reveal their algorithms to investigators or the government.

Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook, and Google’s parent company Alphabet have successfully argued in court that their algorithms are trade secrets.

Analysts said the algorithms could be run privately by the government to build a detailed picture of people’s private opinions and political sympathies based on individuals’ keyword searches, likes and clicks, enabling a more targeted approach to “public opinion management.”

“They will be able to discover through the algorithms exactly who isn’t so fond of the Chinese government,” Ye Yaoyuan, head of the political science department at St. Thomas University, told RFA. “They will be able to track these people over time using the algorithms.”

Ye said the government is likely very interested to know how many people have overseas influences or sympathies, especially where the United States is concerned.

“They can then find ways to turn them around ideologically,” he said. “They could also push different messages to people who are in a specific crisis situation, or people who are still relatively patriotic, to strengthen their support for the CCP.”

“If they’re not already [CCP-supporting] little pinks, then they will be turned into little pinks, and if they are already rebelling, ways will be found to stop them reading what [the government] sees as bad content,” Ye said.

The power of algorithms lies in their ability to tweak what an individual sees online, based on their past browsing and commenting habits, as well as online spending, he said.

“It’s a way to calculate your behavior, based on your personal data.”

He said the submissions of algorithms could lead to far more personalized surveillance of individual internet users in China.

“If the authorities can get access to all of the data held by these private enterprises, they can gain a more comprehensive understanding of what every person is doing in their entire social life, including their online behavior,” Ye said.

For example, a user’s viewing of pornographic images could be recorded by the government and used to put political pressure on them at a later date, he said.

Zhai Wei, of Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law said the information published by the Cyberspace Administration is likely only part of the data submitted by the companies.

He said the companies could also be ordered to make more detailed disclosures in future, ostensibly as part of the government’s supervision of their use of personal data.

Former 1989 pro-democracy movement leader Wang Dan said the enforced submission of algorithms showed just how worried the CCP under leader Xi Jinping is about public opinion.

“They are very worried about what might happen at any time, anywhere across China: they have no confidence,” Wang said on the RFA Mandarin program “Asia Wants to Talk.”

But he said he didn’t believe the attempt would be very effective.

“All of these digital and high-tech devices are controlled ultimately by people, and … if they can’t get the genuine support of ordinary people, all of this high-tech stuff is just empty talk,” Wang said.

An Aug. 17 article in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said the cooperation of “stakeholders” would also be necessary as China starts developing a virtual reality “metaverse.”

“As the metaverse will be an important public social space, the multiple joint efforts of stakeholders will be needed to build it,” the article said.

“These stakeholders should include investors, enterprises, scientific research personnel, legislative bodies, governments, nongovernmental organizations, law researchers … media organizations, colleges and universities,” it said.

“The investors and enterprises should be mainly responsible for controlling capital and algorithms, with enterprises and scientific research personnel responsible for research, development, and maintenance of technologies and content,” it said.