Until recently, the conventional wisdom had been that Chinese Internet users were not particularly concerned about privacy issues. Even as the evidence continued to mount that some China Internet giants might be monitoring, filtering or analyzing their content, there was little or no public outcry. However, starting in June 2017, when the Chinese government passed a sweeping new cybersecurity law, Chinese Internet users have become much more vocal about what they perceive to be a potential breach of privacy.
The growing case against China Internet giants
In December 2017, for example, Chinese Internet search engine giant Baidu was sued by a Chinese consumer group (the Jiangsu Consumer Council) over claims that it had illegally obtained users’ data. According to the claim, mobile apps provided by Baidu could access a user’s calls, location data, messages, and contacts. While Baidu has denied these claims, saying that their apps don’t have the ability to monitor phone calls, you can see the obvious reason for concern: being able to monitor a user’s calls could make it very easy for a company – or the Chinese government – to snoop on them.
And Baidu is hardly the only one of the major China Internet giants facing similar types of allegations. For example, Tencent Holdings, owner and operator of the popular WeChat messaging service, has been called out for potentially snooping on users. Private messages, once thought to be safe from prying eyes, now have the potential to be stored and analyze. Just like Baidu, WeChat has rejected these claims, saying that they don’t store chat logs or use them for any kind of analysis.
Overall, 27 mobile app operators within China have been contacted about potential breach of privacy issues. As the old adage goes, “where there is smoke, there is fire,’ so the growing presumption of China’s Internet users is that their mobile devices are no longer as private as they once assumed, especially when they are using one of the services provided by China Internet giants.
What’s even more worrisome is that the breach of privacy concerns have started to be raised with a growing number of Chinese Internet companies and tech giants in the financial sector. For example, Ant Financial Group, part of Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, recently came under scrutiny for business practices at its Alipay payment service. It turns out that Alipay was inviting users to view their bills online, and as soon as consumers agreed to do this, was auto-enrolling them in a credit-rating system (Sesame Credit) that would potentially expose their personal financial data to third parties. Presumably, this would open up a door for the Chinese government – or some other unauthorized user – to have access to their financial information, in what would be a clear breach of privacy.
The new Chinese cybersecurity law could intensify breach of privacy concerns
So why, then, are we seeing breach of privacy concerns start to bubble up now, after a period in which Chinese consumers largely ignored (or overlooked) those concerns in the past? One commonly advanced explanation by Western experts is based on the unique culture and psyche of the average Chinese citizen – he or she is much more willing to forgive the government a transgression than a private company. In other words, Chinese Internet users who grow up with the notion of a vast, sprawling bureaucratic state are more inclined to give the government a “free pass” than a private corporation.