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Chinese tech giants submit 'top secret' algorithms to Beijing regulator

By RFI
Europe  JonesDay
AUG 16, 2022 LISTEN
© JonesDay

Chinese tech giants including Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance – the parent company behind the TikTok video app – have submitted details of algorithms used in some of their products to China's state regulator, in an unprecedented move that strengthens Beijing's oversight of the sector.

Last Friday, China's internet watchdog published a list of 30 algorithms that companies use to gather information on users and promote content or services.

Globally, algorithms used by tech companies are closely guarded "secrets" but in March, China rolled out regulations obliging firms to disclose these tools as concerns grow about the misuse of data.

In recent years, Beijing has embarked on a wide-ranging clampdown on the technology sector, which saw years of runaway growth and the emergence of supersized monopolies before regulators stepped in.

According to Angela Zhang, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, the rules require that companies ensure they will not engage in activities that may threaten national security, social stability or encourage over-indulgence.

"It requires these service providers to conduct regular self-assessment to ensure compliance and to file their record with the relevant authority," Zhang told AFP.

Policing China's digital platforms

Targets of the latest regulations range from China's Twitter-like platform Weibo to delivery service Meituan and ByteDance's short video app Douyin.

The regulations rolled-out in March maintain the rules only apply to domestic service providers, meaning Douyin's international cousin TikTok – which operates outside of China – would allegedly not have to share information.

The latest list published by the Cyberspace Administration of China briefly describes how the algorithms work and which products they are used for.

For example, Alibaba's popular e-commerce platform Taobao has an algorithm that recommends products based on users' browsing and search history, while Douyin makes recommendations based on factors like how long a user engages with content.

The regulations underline that service providers are forbidden to use algorithms that might encourage addiction among minors or determine transaction prices based on the habits of users.

Offending platforms may be warned, fined or hit with other penalties.

However, the extent to which tech firms have disclosed their software to regulators remains unclear.

Zhang points out that for now, "it doesn't seem that Chinese data regulators have made explicit requirements on these tech firms to change their algorithms. Rather, the regulators are probably at the information collection stage."

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