China goes first with direct algorithm regulations

By: Rob Corbidge, 21 January 2022

Beijing steps in where Western regulators have so far not gone, setting out the legal framework that tech companies must follow in their use of algorithms in order to protect consumers

China has provided a possible template for Western regulators as it seeks to bring its own Big Tech companies to heel over their use of "recommendation" algorithms and secret price structures.

New regulations, that take effect in China from the start of March, are designed to put an end to what the Chinese have called "content intoxication" in which consumers are fed an endless cycle of recommendations, and also address "algorithmic discrimination", by which consumers are given different pricing for the same product, based on data they are not aware is being held.

Such pricing practices have been highlighted in the UK by the Consumer Association this week.

The regulations have been drawn up by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), along with three other government bodies. 

They stipulate that "that algorithmic recommendation service providers shall not use technology to engage in illegal activities or spread illegal information, and shall take measures to prevent the dissemination of harmful online content."

The regulation also prohibits algorithmic recommendation service providers from generating fake news or disseminating information from unauthorised sources.

It states that algorithm technology shall not be used to influence online public opinion, evade supervision and management, and engage in activities of monopoly and unfair competition.

The regulation also demands that "algorithmic recommendation service providers promote mainstream values and spread positive energy."

While "positive energy" might seem a quaint phrase, set against the current Western plague of "doom scrolling" it doesn't sound quite so naive. 

The CAC regulations also direct algorithm recommendation service providers to "protect the interests of elderly people". Such enforcement is also being plannedĀ  in the UK.

The Chinese authorities obviously have their own information control agenda, and it's a level of control that we in the West find unacceptable.

For example, in October last year, Beijing released its white list of 1,358 news outlets - outlets that it is allowed to use content from.

However,  the direction that they are coming is arguably irrelevant, as the Big Tech governance toolkit from which regulators can draw is broadly the same, in either East or West, even given that Beijing can shut an entire business down with greater ease. The internet isn't necessarily about subversion of the state, it's mostly about cats - how much cats is acceptable to watch, whether those cats are going to raid your gran's bank account, and how much you're paying for your exclusive cat content is the more pressing issue in China too.

Of course, one man's "content intoxication" is another man's "finely calibrated content mechanism", and, as anyone in the industry knows, China's own TikTok - Douyin in China - is the current master of that particular art.