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China: Regulator releases details on web services algorithms

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Companies like Alibaba or Bytedance have to disclose the algorithms of their apps in china. Now the authority has published a list for the first time.

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The top Internet regulator in China (Cyberspace Administration of China, CAC) has for the first time published a list of information on algorithms in some apps of large Internet companies such as Tencent, Alibaba and Bytedance. In China, a new law regulates data protection for Internet platform operators. Among other things, they must disclose which algorithms they use to monitor user behavior, collect and use user data and to what extent they obtain user consent for this. The first companies have now complied with the obligation to describe to the CAC how the algorithms used in their apps work. This is reported by Reuters.

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The list published in Chinese by the CAC includes 30 algorithms used by some apps popular in China, Reuters writes. These include the online marketplace Taobao from Alibaba (a shopping platform between private individuals, comparable to eBay), the short message service Wechat from the company Tencent (which, among other things, offers a much-used payment function), the search engine app Baidu from the company of the same name, and Douyin, the China used counterpart to Tiktok from the company Bytedance. The list will be continuously expanded.

The designations and descriptions of the algorithms in the published document briefly explain their tasks, but with relevant information on data protection. The “search filter” in the Baidu app, for example, is designed to filter out information that could pose a security risk, reveal personal information, or be illegal. Taobao includes a recommendation algorithm that becomes active at certain points (e.g. home page, shopping, complete a purchase) and offers goods and services that could be of interest to the user based on their behavior and search history. At Wechat, a similar algorithm suggests posts, images, and videos to users based on their viewing habits, browser history, and the public accounts the user follows.

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The new law came into force in China on March 1st of this year and regulates the “administration of algorithm recommendations for Internet information services”. This is intended to make algorithms more transparent to citizens. In addition, platform operators must offer users the opportunity to Blocking features against evaluation and completely switching off the algorithm recommendation services This allows the regulatory authorities to intervene relatively far in the activities of the service providers, but the “opt-out” principle applies: First, apps are allowed to monitor users and collect their data, which users can and have to turn it off yourself.

The new regulation contains further provisions: companies are not allowed to give different customers different prices for the same product based on their profile. However, the new regulations also require Internet companies to make content adjustments and even to censor. As a result, there was criticism that the Chinese Communist Party (CP) was thereby curtailing the power of Internet companies, but at the same time expanding its own options for monitoring and, if necessary, suppressing its citizens.


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