China unveils plan to bring algorithms of its internet industry under state control to tighten censorship

China on Wednesday unveiled a three-year plan to bring the algorithms related to internet information services of its fast-growing web industry under state control.

Chinese regulators will strengthen the management of algorithms related to internet information services to foster “healthy” and “orderly” development of the industry, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

A three-year campaign will seek to put in place a sound management mechanism and supervision system, and a standardised algorithm ecosystem, according to new guidelines issued by nine ministries or departments including the Cyberspace Administration of China.

The guidelines urged enterprises to strengthen their sense of responsibility and set up responsibility systems for algorithm security and sci-tech ethical review systems.

Legal violations and malpractices related to algorithms will be severely punished, the report said, citing guidelines.

The guidelines also called for efforts to prevent the abuse of algorithms, prohibiting activities that use them to tamper with public opinion, attack competitors and infringe upon the rights and interests of internet users.

Algorithms that are used as specifications for performing data processing, calculations, automated reasoning and other tasks have emerged as one of the most important assets of Chinese tech companies.

Internet companies in China have long been tasked with adjusting their algorithms to restrict users’ access to information deemed inappropriate by the government while promoting those that are considered beneficial.

The operators of the most successful video platforms such as ByteDance’s TikTok and anime-streaming service Bilibili rely on algorithms to continuously learn about the personal interests of their users and recommend relevant content or products to them, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.

Algorithms are considered so valuable that when the US government under then president Donald Trump pressured ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US business last year, the Beijing-based tech unicorn had no intention to divest ownership of the app’s source code in any deal, the Post quoted an official as saying.

China has over 700 million internet connections and its biggest social media platform Weibo, akin to Twitter, had over 500 million subscribers.

Over the years, Beijing had developed massive internet firewalls to control the content of the social media.

Top global social media firms Facebook, Twitter and Google stand banned in the country. They can be accessed only through the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

The Chinese government is planning to regulate the use of algorithms to tighten its grip on what people can read and watch in the digital economy, the Post reported.

These moves are part of a wider campaign by Beijing to broaden its control over online content, it said.

Earlier this month, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and State Council jointly released a set of guidelines for building “cyberspace civilisation”, which experts said signalled more crackdowns and online propaganda efforts ahead of important events scheduled next year, including the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and a major Party congress, the Post reported.

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