Flag of China over binary code

Chinese tech giants share secret algorithm details with top regulator

Alibaba, Tiktok-owner ByteDance and Tencent have shared details of their algorithms with China's cyberspace regulators for the first time.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has released a list with descriptions of 30 algorithms alongside a brief description of their purpose. The data published includes algorithms developed by some of the country's largest technology companies, including e-commerce firm Alibaba and gaming giant Tencent.

Publication follows China's drive to bring in tighter controls for technology firms. Last March, the country brought in a law that gives consumers more control over companies' algorithms and requires firms to obtain a licence to provide news services. 

Algorithms regulate the way users interact with online content, based on analyses of their interaction with each platform. Because of this, they are often closely guarded by companies. The list published by the Chinese government marks the first time that firms such as TikTok's ByteDance have shared details of their algorithms with regulators. 

The document revealed that ByteDance's algorithm for Douyin, China's version of TikTok, is said to gauge user interests through what they click, comment on, 'like' or 'dislike'. In contrast, e-commerce website Taobao, owned by Alibaba, states its algorithm "recommends products or services to users through their digital footprint and historical search data."

The CAC revealed in a statement that its algorithm list would be routinely updated in a bid to curb data abuse.

Although the descriptions given in the published list are succinct, the extent of details that companies were asked to submit to the CAC is unknown. 

Zhai Wei, an executive director at the Competition Law Research Center at the East China University of Political Science and Law, told the BBC that he believed the information provided was "much more detailed than what was published for sure." However, Kendra Schaefer, head of tech policy research at Trivium China, said the data appeared "surface level." 

"It doesn't look like the algorithms themselves have been submitted," she told the BBC. "Each one of these algorithms has been given a registration number, so the CAC can focus enforcement efforts on a particular algorithm. The question is, what is the next step to seeing if an algorithm is up to code?"

In the US, companies such as Meta and Alphabet have successfully avoided being forced to provide similar information by arguing it constitutes trade secrets.

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