Data protection debate is slowly coming to China

Beijing is seeking to legislate but does not want to curb the growth of its Web giants, like Alibaba and Tencent, which have accumulated billions of data on Chinese consumers.

The exhibition lasted four days before being closed by the Wuhan police in central China. On large sheets of paper, one could read the name, sex, age, address, telephone number, license plate, trips or purchases made by 346,000 inhabitants of the city. The artist, who wanted to alert the public about the protection of privacy, explained to the newspaper “The Paper” that he had bought all this data via QQ messaging, for 1 cent of yuan per person.

The process is illegal but illustrates the stakes that await China at a time when the country is investing massively in artificial intelligence and when mastodons like Alibaba and Tencent are gathering billions of pieces of information by extending their presence in the daily lives of Chinese people. Components, research, algorithms, China is still lagging behind in most key areas of artificial intelligence compared to the United States, notes a recent study by Oxford University. With two notable exceptions: data and start-up financing.

Fierce competition

If Facebook is censored in the country, the controversy surrounding the American company does not escape the Chinese authorities. Beijing is seeking to legislate on consumer data protection while building huge databases as part of its social credit project. Engaged in fierce competition to become a world leader in artificial intelligence, the communist regime must also take care not to harm the growth of its private giants of technology. The latter relies heavily on data exploitation to continue to grow and expand their activities.

China will win the race for artificial intelligence because it does not have a “serious law” protecting data privacy, one of Credit Suisse’s bosses in Asia recently said at a conference in Hong Kong. Regulations have been tightened recently,” says Christine Miles, a lawyer with DHH in Beijing. There is no law specifically devoted to the protection of private data, but several texts provide a framework for what can be done regarding data collection, storage, and use. The cyber-security law, effective since June 2017, constitutes the first law of national scope and will be specified by a new regulation applicable on May 1,” she says.

While Chinese consumers are willing to allow access to their data in exchange for ubiquitous mobile services, the data protection debate is slowly beginning to emerge in China. Robin Li, CEO, and co-founder of Internet giant Baidu, has recently sparked a significant controversy on Chinese social networks by publicly stating that “Chinese people are more open and less sensitive to the issue of privacy. In January, Beijing reprimanded Baidu, Alibaba and content aggregator Toutiao over a rare controversy over personal data protection. But he didn’t sanction them.