Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance Summoned by Chinese Internet Regulator over Voice Software and “Deep-fake” Technology

China’s internet regulator recently held talks with 11 heavyweight tech companies, including Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, TikTok owner ByteDance and its rival Kuaishou, to discuss the firms’ use of voice-based social platforms and “deep-fake” technology, in a bid by officials to strengthen security management of the sector.

In order to standardize internet information services and safeguard national security and social order, Chinese authorities will demand that domestic tech companies undertake security assessments of their services and inform regulators before adding functions which could channel public opinions and mobilize society, according to a statement posted on Cyberspace Administration of China’s website Thursday.

After China blocked the US audio app Clubhouse, which had engaged hundreds of thousands of Chinese-speaking users talking about everything from politics and technology to job-seeking and dating, several Chinese tech giants including Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi and ByteDance have developed similar online conversation platforms. Clubhouse is based on real-time voice sharing in chat-rooms that disappear when conversations end, providing a sense of intimacy that is lacking on other social media platforms. The phenomenon inevitably caused authorities to worry about the emergence of content related to politically sensitive topics on these platforms.

On the other hand, deep-fake technology allows users to replace an existing person in an image, audio or video clip with someone else and create seemingly authentic content, which is based on sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. A deep fake could show a person doing and saying things that they never did nor said in actuality.

Avatarify, an open-source face-changing software which achieved huge popularity in China with more than 1.5 million installs, was removed from Apple’s China app store on March 2, only a week after its release, allegedly after it sparked concerns about fraud and data security. A Chinese deep-fake app called Zao, which went viral in 2019, let users swap their faces with film or TV characters and was censored by the country’s major messaging platforms amid criticism about its privacy policy.

Beijing has taken steps to tighten its grip on the country’s rapidly growing internet industry. The Chinese government abruptly ordered a halt to Ant Group’s share sale in November that was set to raise more than $37 billion, which would have made it one of the biggest IPOs in history. Last week, ten domestic tech companies were fined 500,000 yuan ($77,000) each by China’s market regulator for past deals deemed to have violated antitrust laws.

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The internet watchdog’s latest move is regarded as a sign that Beijing is expanding its toughened oversight of the sector, from issues regarding finance to the adoption of new technologies.