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Chinese Internet Users Start To Rebel Against Lack Of Online Privacy


We recently reported how China continues to turn the online world into the ultimate surveillance system, which hardly comes as a surprise, since China has been relentlessly moving in this direction for years. What is rather more surprising is that Chinese citizens are beginning to push back, at least in certain areas. For example, The New York Times reports on an "outcry" provoked by a division of the Alibaba behemoth when it assumed that its users wouldn't worry too much if they were enrolled automatically in one of China's commercially-run tracking systems:

Ant Financial, an affiliate of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, apologized to users on Thursday after prompting an outcry by automatically enrolling in its social credit program those who wanted to see the breakdown [of their spending made via Ant Financial's online payment system]. The program, called Sesame Credit, tracks personal relationships and behavior patterns to help determine lending decisions.

When one of China's business leaders complained publicly about the lack of privacy in China, and how Tencent's hugely-popular WeChat program spied on users, the company's denials were met with another outcry:

Tencent said that the company did not store the chat history of users and that it would never use chat history for big data analytics. The comments were met with widespread disbelief: WeChat users have been arrested over what they've said on the app, conversations have turned up as evidence in court proceedings, and activists have reported being followed based on WeChat conversations.

Meanwhile, the third of China's Big Three Internet companies -- Baidu -- has been hit with legal action over privacy concerns, reported here by Caixin:

Baidu Inc., China’s largest search-engine operator, is being sued by a consumer-protection organization that claims it collected users' information without consent, in the latest privacy dispute involving the country's tech giants.

Two mobile apps operated by New York-listed Baidu, a search engine and a web browser, could access a user's calls, location data, messages and contacts without notifying the user, the Jiangsu Consumer Council, a government-backed consumer rights association, claimed in a statement on its website.

The Chinese government may not worry too much about these calls for more privacy provided they remain directed at companies, since they offer a useful way for citizens to express their concerns about surveillance without challenging the state. It looks happy to encourage users to demand more control over how online services use their personal data -- so long as the authorities can still access everything themselves.

As well as government acquiescence in these moves, there's another reason why Chinese companies may well start to take online privacy more seriously. Аn article in the South China Morning Post points out that if Chinese online giants want to move beyond their fast-saturating home market, and start operating in the US and EU, they will need to pay much more attention to privacy to satisfy local laws. As Techdirt reported, an important partnership between AT&T and Huawei, China's biggest hardware company, has just been blocked because of unproven accusations that data handled by Huawei's products might make its way back to the Chinese government.

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