China Is Tightening Its Grip on Big Tech

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China’s technology regulation goals are often in direct contradiction to what the rest of the world is trying to do. “Nothing, or very little of what is being done in China, is holding back the power of the largest data processor of all: the Chinese government,” says Jamie Susskind, a lawyer specializing in data and technology at the 11KBW London law firm . Within China, officials have focused their attention on the regulation of domestic technology companies to the point of presentation. The wider techlash has already resulted in Alibaba co-founder and chief executive Jack Ma retiring from public life and it is rumored that he is behind the decision by ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming to step down. of CEO.

Ma’s dramatic fall is typical of China’s approach to regulation. “When we started having staring eyes at the Chinese model of enforcement, we lost track of the fact that regulation doesn’t just have to control private companies,” Susskind says. “It is also supposed to limit the power of the state.” In China, this is rarely the case. The challenge, Webster adds, is to choose the areas in which China and the rest of the world share common goals, and the areas in which China pursues goals that democracies would find disgusting.

Take China’s draft rules on synthetic media as an example. Presented in January, the proposals call for limits to be set on the dissemination of deepfake content, a problem that has affected not only China but the entire world. According to the rules, anything “synthetic” cannot be promoted by algorithms. Applications that promote deepfake content could face criminal prosecution and fines of up to RMB 100,000 ($ 15,000). However, China has been one of the leading developers of deepfake technology, including the local Zao app, which became popular in 2019.

But China’s recent wave of striking moves against big technologies is also a sign that officials are up to date with the rest of the world. For years, the country, like many others, has let the technology sector develop as a key engine of economic growth. And as a result, the sector was closely tied to the political elite. Ma d’Alibaba, for example, has been a member of the Chinese Communist Party since the 1980s. This proximity has allowed certain technology founders to pressure officials to obtain preferential treatment. “Chinese regulation used to be very lax,” Zhang says. “The recent application is mostly restoring a certain balance between regulation and innovation.”

And in some cases, Chinese policymakers are adapting ideas from the West. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation not only inspired California’s Consumer Privacy Act, but also similar moves in China, including that country’s Personal Data Protection Act, which limits the amount of data personal data that private companies can collect. (The state, of course, can pick up whatever it wants.) The concept of seeing what the world is doing and then modeling a solution that is right for China is not unique to technology, Webster says. “This is how China’s policymakers work: they actively compare other systems.”

Chinese regulators may be coming out of nowhere to some extent, but they are making their own way with how they seek to control the technology sector. And, as more regulation is introduced, it will only further split an already fragmented Internet. But, Webster argues, there may be lessons to be learned what China is tackling, more than how is going through that. “There are smart people working hard to try to reshape the Chinese digital economy,” he says. “The work is not that different, although the political systems are.”

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