China Presses Tech Firms to Police the Internet

China Presses Tech Firms to Police the Internet

Third-annual World Internet Conference aimed at proselytizing China’s view to global audience

By EVA DOU Nov. 18, 2016 6:17 a.m. ET

WUZHEN, China—Picture an internet where tech companies are deputized as crime-fighters, where censors keep radical views in check and where governments work together to achieve global order in cyberspace.

That is China’s vision, and its third-annual World Internet Conference that ended Friday was aimed at proselytizing that view to tech executives and government leaders who assembled here from around the world.

China’s efforts to promote its concept of the internet had fresh resonance as Western minds now debate whether social media sites should screen out fake news, or if smartphone makers should help police gain access to the secrets locked away in the devices of suspected criminals.

As U.S. tech companies wring their hands over their social responsibilities, China presents a clear-cut alternative: nothing outweighs national security interests, as defined by the country’s top leaders.

“The private sector must take on the responsibility and duty to fight terrorism,” Yu Weimin, vice president of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the online retailer and one of China’s biggest technology companies, said at the conference.

China passed a counterterrorism law in December 2015 that required tech companies to help the government decrypt data and provide other technical support to crack cases. Other recent laws require internet companies to censor false rumors and any content that could hurt national security.

Mr. Yu, a former official with the Ministry of Public Security, said that web companies are singularly equipped with the tools to sift through mountains of data that could be relevant to counterterrorism authorities, and should not hesitate to do so.

Alibaba now has about 3,000 of its nearly 50,000 employees involved in counterterrorism and cybersecurity efforts, he added.

Companies that host or produce entertainment content should also make sure their channels aren’t used to promote terrorism, even inadvertently, said Yang Peng, cybersecurity director for Tencent Holdings Ltd., China’s top messaging and gaming company.

Mr. Yang said his company carefully screens the videos users upload to Tencent’s website, and blocks those it deems harmful.

“Under the direction and help of the country’s relevant departments,” he said, “Tencent’s online counterterrorism environment has made clear progress.”

Tech companies including Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are under growing pressure in the U.S. to police their news content and delete false reports, after some users argued that bogus stories on social media helped Donald Trump win the presidential election.

The issue of corporate responsibility to help the government also emerged following last year’s mass-shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., when Apple Inc. declined to help the FBI decrypt an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters.

U.S. tech companies have in many cases resisted cooperating with the government, saying free expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and they should not be placed in the position of determining speech that crosses the line into posing a public threat.

Such qualms are rare in China. During one session at the conference, former Hong Kong police officer Kam Chow Wong took the stage and flashed pictures across the big screen behind him of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters in 2014.

“These kind of people, once they are radicalized, they become the next generation of terrorists,” said Mr. Wong, who went on to describe how the protesters used Facebook and Twitter.

China’s President Xi Jinping opened the conference with video remarks calling for a “more fair and equitable” governance of the global web. The main speaker at the conference wasn't a technology official, but the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological chief Liu Yunshan. Mr. Liu proclaimed China to be a global opinion leader on the use of new technologies in counterterrorism.

“When it comes to holding online counterterrorism forums, we can say that what others don’t do, we do,” said Mr. Liu. “What others do, we do well. And what others do well, we do better.”

Many industry stakeholders aren't convinced. But the presence of big western companies at the conference -- including Facebook, International Business Machines Corp., Qualcomm Inc., Microsoft Corp. and LinkedIn Corp. -- illustrated the importance of China to their businesses.

Some observers also think China has an opportunity to gain converts, based on campaign rhetoric from Mr. Trump suggesting he will be focused on domestic policies, and less concerned about getting involved in global debates on ideology.

“On free expression, I think the new administration is going to be less ideological about that,” said Bruce McConnell, vice president of the East-West Institute. “There may be a shift in emphasis.”

Write to Eva Dou at eva.dou@wsj.com


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