The Chinese government is forcing tech companies like Alibaba to provide law enforcement with unfettered access to their databases.
Here’s an example: A former Alibaba employee recalls an instance in which the police wanted to find a person who had posted content related to terrorism. “They came to me and asked me for the user ID and information,” said the employee. He gave it to them.
This would not happen in the United States, where requests for information must be court-approved. In China, cops can use search warrants issued by their own department. To make matters worse, Chinese companies do not release any information regarding requests from the government.
In effect, the Chinese government is using tech companies to build a sophisticated, high-tech system to spy on its citizens. This system includes facial-recognition technology, surveillance cameras, and massive computer systems that are able to search through terabytes of data.
Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and others are required to help the government hunt down criminal suspects, silence political dissent, and participate in a project that calls for the creation of “smart cities” that are completely wired for surveillance.
Cooperation is not an option in a country where the Communist Party controls the legal system and the right to operate as a business.
“The political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the Internet, inseparable from big data,” says Alibaba founder Jack Ma, adding that technology will one day make it possible to predict crime. “Bad guys won’t even be able to walk into the square.”
The ability to predict crime sounds like a good thing, but is it worth the privacy of every citizen?
“Everyone has a spy watching them. That spy is their smartphone,” says Beijing activist Hu Jia, who was confronted by state security agents after he sent a list of activists’ names to a friend headed to Taiwan.
“Experience has proven that WeChat is completely compromised,” he added, referring to a popular app owned by Tencent.
Other WeChat users say they have received automatic warnings regarding politically sensitive content. Some say their accounts were suspended or deactivated for posts critical of the government.
There have been instances in which Alibaba and other companies have pushed back against a request they feel is unwarranted – but the Chinese government always has the last word.
Unlike the US, “there is no independent judiciary to approve or review government requests – or for companies to appeal to if they disagree with a demand,” notes the Wall Street Journal.
This means that regulators can force platforms to stop streaming videos with political content the government doesn't agree with (this has already happened). Regulators have also threatened to shut down companies if they fail to comply with social media rules.
Facebook, Twitter, and most of Google's services are blocked in China.
On June 1st, a new law went into effect that requires ISPs to help the feds locate content that “endangers national security, national honor, and interests.” Acting under this law, China's Cyberspace Administration was able to slap massive fines on Tencent for allowing users to spread pornography and “false rumors.”
Tencent’s online monitoring operations current filter news feeds and videos for content such as:
• Terrorism content
• Content promoting gambling
• Content containing state secrets
• Content undermining public morality
• Unfavorable references to the Communist Party and its leaders
• Foreign news stories that cast China in a negative light
It is virtually impossible for a Chinese citizen to get through the day without using an app run by Alibaba or Tencent, both of which are among the world's top 10 most valuable companies.
Alibaba is an e-commerce giant second only to Amazon. Tencent is a gaming company whose WeChat messaging service has a virtual monopoly on communication in China. Shop signs demanding payment through WeChat are common, and Tencent’s massively popular “Honour of Kings” mobile game has 200 million registered accounts in China.
Editor's note: While China's restrictions are draconian in terms of free speech, let's not forget that NSA still has a massive spy program against American citizens. It is really time to dial that back.