What Will Data Rights For the Individual Look Like in China?

3 min read 

The greatest challenge with the rise of digital publishing and large-scale digital media publishers like Facebook, Google, and in China, WeChat and Sina Weibo, is redefining who owns what.

Chinese digital media publishers
Chinese digital media publishers

The digital media publishers of the 21st century are very different from the newspaper publishers of the 19th century in that most of their content is not generated by paid reporters, but by unpaid volunteers, who create content and publish to the world, while the publishers harvest the keywords, and place income-producing digital advertising appropriately.

In the west, and especially in the US, the law has not kept up with the times. Google and Facebook spend large amounts of lobbying money to convince the government in Washington DC that they are not publishers, but are technology companies. Taking this stance, they can argue that they are not liable to the traditional anti-libel laws which hold media companies accountable for what they publish, even though they get almost all of their revenue from advertising as media companies do.

These companies have strenuously avoided being classified as media companies by hiring third-party contracting firms and tasking them with hiring content management personnel, instead of bringing them in-house.

This arrangement has led to all kinds of problems in the United States. Unpaid content creators who are not on the company payroll get paid by someone else, and some bad actors have gotten themselves involved. They have gamed a system where viral content is rewarded, and in some cases, even interfered with elections where hate groups and non-US players manipulate voters’ opinion to get candidates they support elected. This has been highlighted by the election of President Trump in 2016, and the ongoing Justice Department investigation of outside interference in the presidential elections.

In China, the government treats Internet companies as publishers, and holds them accountable for following and implementing government-issued guidelines. If there are violations, companies may be forced to suspend business for a certain amount of time. Under the law in China, the government has backdoor access to all user account information on servers in China. In practice, this means that the Chinese security services can access any account at any time. US companies like Google and Facebook have balked at complying with this request, which is why they do not operate in China.

Although unfavorable to Western companies, this policy has led to the rise of the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) companies, who are most in tune with Chinese government policies and guidelines. When it comes to publishing content, they have become the frontline enforcers of law, making sure that content published online all follow guidelines in real-time. On the business level, this means that other startups have to look to what these three companies are doing, and find a path to survive, which usually involves establishing a certain degree of partnership with these companies. A great example of this is Pinduoduo, which recently stated publicly that its relationship with Tencent is important to its survival and growth.

Robin Li, Baidu's co-founder and chief executive (source: Reuters)
Robin Li, Baidu’s co-founder and chief executive (source: Reuters)

In March, Robin Li (co-founder of Baidu) stated that when it comes to privacy, Chinese users did not care whether the government had access to personal information. Many Chinese, however, disagreed to this and a heated debate online about what data privacy should look like for the Chinese broke out thereafter. So far, the Chinese government has looked at online content from a national security point of view for the government and society as a whole, but has not defined what it should look like for the individual. The strong reaction to Li’s statement that Chinese do not care about data privacy means that this is an issue they are beginning to think about.

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