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A visitor watches a video at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2021 in Guiyang, China, on May 26, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

China draws up plan to bring algorithms under state control in sign of tightened censorship

  • A three-year plan jointly published by nine central government bodies asks local authorities to regulate the use of algorithms and uphold communist ideology
  • China wants tighter control over how content recommendation algorithms shape online discussions among its 1 billion internet users

China has laid out a three-year plan to rein in the use of algorithms, marking Beijing’s latest effort to bring the country’s internet industry firmly under state control.

Under the new policy guidelines, local governments are urged to tighten the regulation of algorithms, while companies are told that they will be held accountable for misusing the technology, according to a notice published on Wednesday by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet watchdog.

Beijing’s grip on content algorithms takes propaganda into the 21st Century

“In recent years, algorithms have played an important role in accelerating the spread of information, fostering the digital economy and promoting social development. At the same time, the inappropriate application of algorithms has disrupted the dissemination of information, as well as market and social order, posing a challenge to the protection of ideology, social justice and the rights of internet users,” said the document.

The guidelines were jointly signed by the CAC and eight other regulators, including the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the State Administration for Market Regulation and the National Radio and Television Administration.

Algorithms have emerged as one of the most important assets of Chinese tech companies. The operators of video platforms such as ByteDance’s TikTok and anime-streaming service Bilibili rely on algorithms to continuously learn about the personal interests of their users and recommend relevant content or products to them.

Algorithms are considered so valuable that when the US government under then-president Donald Trump pressured ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US business last year, the Beijing-based tech unicorn had no intension to divest ownership of the app’s source code in any deal, a source told the Post . “The car can be sold, but not the engine,” the source said at the time.
The latest government guidelines on algorithms followed a set of draft rules published by the CAC in August, aimed at giving internet users the right to say no to targeted pop-up alerts. The rules, which were open for public canvassing until last week, also put additional legal responsibilities on algorithm owners operating in news, web search, gaming, e-commerce and short-video sharing.

The Chinese government has sought to regulate the use of algorithms to tighten its grip on what people can read and watch in the digital economy. A CAC regulation on content published in 2019 specified that algorithms should allow for some human interference.

Nailing Jell-O to the wall: new rules reveal China’s vision for internet control

These moves are part of a wider campaign by Beijing to broaden its control over online content. Earlier this month, the Communist Party and State Council jointly released a set of guidelines for building a “cyberspace civilisation”, which experts said signalled more crackdowns and online propaganda efforts ahead of important events scheduled next year, including the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and a major Party congress.

The CAC document published on Wednesday reiterated the role of companies in self-regulation. Authorities said businesses should improve their ability to cope with “emergencies” related to “algorithm safety”. They should also expect to be held responsible for any consequences produced by their algorithms.

Internet companies in China have long been tasked with adjusting their algorithms to restrict users’ access to information deemed inappropriate by the government, while promoting those that are considered beneficial.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China unveils plan to regulate use of algorithms