Updated: Apr 29, 2022
The Chinese Government's Goals in the New Algorithm Regulation Campaign
The development of science and technology has brought enormous changes in modern society. The popularisation of the internet is undoubtedly one of the technological advances with the most significant social impact, as it triggered an irreversible change in the way we perceive our daily lives and the protection of our personal data. Recent research has shown that 4.95 billion people now access the internet on a daily basis, a number that is expected to grow by 4% every year. There is no denying it: we are living in the age of the Internet. The advantages of this digital revolution are well known, but the dangers remain largely unknown.
Every search, every download, every purchase: everything is stored in a database that meticulously tracks and preserves any personal information that is, very often superficially, entered by users.
Concerns about privacy on the Internet are increasingly becoming a matter of international controversy and require immediate measures; it is not just a matter of solving monopoly and unfair competition issues, it's about protecting the weaker subjects of society (such as the elderly and children) who have been most affected by the recommendation algorithm over the years. Governments around the world have tried to come up with legislative proposals to try and curb the power of the tech giants, whose algorithms have been accused of recommending posts that exacerbate hate speech and worsen political polarisation. Xi Jinping is well aware of the place of China's digital economy in the world: it is big but not strong, fast but not superior, hence it needs to be constantly strengthened and improved. The legislation for the regulation of algorithms that will come into force from 1 March 2022 could therefore represent a redemption opportunity for China's digital economy, as it would set a global precedent in the fight against deep learning algorithms. Despite global efforts, there is still a lack of effective legislation on digital privacy law and the processing of personal data: the European Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) merely sets out outdated guidelines while in the US websites are not required to seek consent for cookies. In today's socio-economic environment, the intrusion of privacy into users' daily browsing is a national security threat that China is determined to fight at all costs. The Chinese Communist Party developed in just a few months a legislation that protects its citizens' most sensitive data, demonstrating once again the effectiveness of its political system.
The efforts of the Cybersecurity Administration of China (CAC) are primarily aimed at protecting its users. As early as mid-2021, the CAC had reprimanded 105 apps (including Douyin and Kuaishou) for illegally collecting their users' information and forced them to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Douyin and Kuaishou were also subject to additional controls and restrictions regarding the protection of minors, who are considered to be among those most at risk of developing a serious internet addiction. The company Bytedance, owner of Douyin and Tiktok, had to impose restrictions for children under 14 years old: no more than 40 minutes per day and only from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. During this time, an algorithm will promote educational videos that will include history facts, experiments and general knowledge. However, it is not only the youngsters who are victims of technology companies and the misuse of algorithms: older people also need to be protected, as they are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of technology-related frauds and scams. In fact, one of the goals of the CAC and the Party is to take care of the elderly population through the new campaign to rectify China's digital platforms. The regulation will take care of the needs of the elderly for travel, medical care and management affairs by providing them with intelligent services, in accordance with relevant national regulations. Currently, many websites use the recommendation algorithm to identify elderly users and then redirect them to invasive software that can steal and sell users' personal data, violating their privacy. In the current demographic context, the over-60s and under-14s are respectively accounting for 18.7% and 17.9% of the Chinese population, it is thus even clearer why the issue of personal data processing has become an urgent matter.
The new legislation for regulating recommendation algorithms is a collaboration of four Chinese government agencies and is the most comprehensive set of rules in this field so far. In a world governed by algorithms, it is necessary to set limits on the control artificial intelligence has over society.
The fear that the most intimate details of our daily lives are being constantly monitored is unfortunately not the only problem with recommendation algorithms: the current algorithmic system also has far-reaching consequences for the free market. Many Chinese e-commerce companies have been accused of inhibiting competition by using unfair practices that exploit users' browsing history and personal data. What most fuels monopolistic competition in the Chinese market is the practice of big data analytics, a process through which many companies misuse the profiles and consumption habits of existing customers to price their products at higher prices. Among the companies fined for practising algorithmic discrimination are some of the biggest giants of the Chinese economy, such as the multinational e-commerce leader Alibaba, delivery giant Meituan and entertainment company Tencent. The CCP is demanding greater transparency on how the algorithms used work, allowing customers to gain more control over what data companies can use. The new CAC provisions on algorithmic discrimination play an important role in the antitrust 4.0 legislation: banning the excessive use of recommendation algorithms could correct monopolistic practices and anti-competitive behaviour in the digital market.
Another goal that the party hopes to achieve through the rectification campaign of digital platforms is to stop the creation and spread of fake news or information whose sources have not been verified. The latter proposal, however, is completely at odds with the media circus concerning the alleged US origin of the Coronavirus. Until a few months ago, there was a popular theory on social media that saw the virus as an American disease introduced by members of the Fort Detrick army in October 2019. This hypothesis was reinforced through the figure of Wilson Edwards, an alleged Swiss biologist who later turned out to be a creation of a Chinese cybersecurity company.
The new legislation also requires all recommendation algorithms capable of influencing public opinion to be subject to careful review. It is unclear, however, whether the purpose is to protect citizens from scams and social instability or instead a desperate attempt of the Party not to lose face at a time of such high media coverage.
The campaign to rectify the recommendation algorithms could also be a double-edged sword: on the one hand it could put an end to the illegal exploitation of users' personal data, but on the other hand it could increase media censorship, thus making the Party the only true Chinese influencer.
Emma Mazzei has recently obtained her bachelor’s degree in Language, Culture and Society of Asia and Mediterranean Africa, majoring in Chinese Language from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and she is now enrolled in a Double Joint Degree programme at Beijing Capital Normal University. During her studies, she mostly focused on contemporary Chinese society and Chinese linguistics. She is very passionate about gender studies and she is keen on researching opportunities to achieve gender equality in China and the European Union alike.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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