China is waking up to data protection and privacy. Here's why that matters.


In September 2019, China had its own version of the FaceApp privacy storm. Using artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques, the Zao app allowed users to swap faces with celebrities in movies or TV shows. It went viral as a tool for creating deepfakes, but concerns soon arose as people noticed that Zao's user agreement gave the app the global rights to use any image or video created on the platform for free.

After a public outcry regarding these controversial user privacy terms and questions over data safety, the company clarified that the app would not store any users' facial information. Under pressure, the company also declared that once a user uninstalls Zao or deletes their account, the app would remove related information as required by regulations and "ensure the safety of personal information and data in every possible way".

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in early 2018 on Facebook's data practice, he warned that regulating the platform's use of personal data would cause the US to fall behind Chinese companies when it comes to data-intensive innovation, such as AI. His argument reflected the conventional wisdom that the Chinese internet industry has a tremendous amount of user data accumulated for AI research thanks to lax regulation on data collection in China.

But 2018-2019 could be viewed as the time when the Chinese public woke up to privacy. When Robin Li, founder of Baidu, made the "trading privacy for convenience" comment in early 2018, his remark incited uproar amongst internet users. As luck would have it, Baidu was sued in the same year by a consumer rights protection group in Jiangsu province for collecting user data without consent (the lawsuit was later withdrawn, after the company removed the function to monitor users' contacts and activities).

Chinese users recently challenged another internet giant, Alibaba, on personal data privacy. Ant Financial, Alibaba's financial arm has launched Zhima (Sesame) Credit, an online credit scoring service which offers loans based on users' digital activities, transaction records and social media presence. Users discovered that they had been enrolled in the credit scoring system by default and without consent. Under pressure, Alibaba apologized.

Increasingly, Chinese consumers are vocally standing up for their privacy in front of internet giants. Meanwhile, the late-2018 China's People's Congress announced that China's personal data protection law was...

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