We hate spying and surveillance, says People’s Republic of China

By Eric Johansson

China is putting the screws on companies’ app data tracking habits with new guidelines, adding to the crackdown against some of the nation’s biggest tech firms.

Beijing began pushing for stricter controls to prevent unscrupulous tracking by app makers at the end of 2020 with the proposal of a new data protection law and its cybersecurity watchdog looking for comments on new guidelines.

Now a group of Chinese regulators have issued new guidance designed to prevent firms from denying services to users that refuse to share personal information about themselves.

Up until now, it has been common practice for Chinese app makers to decline access to their services if the user doesn’t want to share data that’s non-essential to the services. That could include anything from biometrics to picture albums.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Market Regulation signed a joint statement backing the new rules on Monday, TechCrunch reported.

CAC also issued a statement on its WeChat channel, reiterating that the guidelines were aimed to regulate apps’ access to personal data, Reuters reported. It did not name and shame any particular firm in the statement.

Experts say that the extraneous data collected by apps are often used for advertisement purposes.

The new guidelines will snap into action on 1 May, but it is unclear how they will be enforced.

Turning up the heat

The new guidelines are another example of Beijing’s crackdown on its tech companies in recent months. This includes drafting an anti-monopoly bill on the back of the suspension of Ant Group’s planned initial public offering (IPO) last fall. The scrapped $37bn IPO of the Alibaba-backed company would’ve been the largest in history.

The governor of the People’s Bank of China hinted earlier this year that the float could still happen if Ant Group resolved privacy-related issues, adding that the process is complicated and subject to “rule by law”. Regulators pulled the IPO days before it was supposed to happen in Shanghai.

The regulators’ blocking of the deal happened after Alibaba founder Jack Ma appeared to make negative comments about China’s financial regulator. It has not been confirmed whether or not these two events are linked.

Similarly, the Chinese State Administration for Market Regulation fined 12 companies for breaking anti-monopoly rules earlier this month. The sanctioned companies include Tencent, SoftBank, Didi Chuxing and Baidu.

Apple bites back

Chinese tech firms’ ad revenues are also being threatened by Apple. The Cupertino, California-based tech titan is set to introduce a new privacy policy. The new policy will give users the ability to opt-out of being tracked by the apps they use on their iPhones.

Most customers are expected to opt-out of being tracked, which would take a massive chunk out of businesses’ ad revenues. The new policy is expected to be rolled out within the next few weeks.

However, several Chinese tech giants, including Tencent and ByteDance, have recently been revealed to be testing a tool enabling them to skirt the rules.

The tool had been developed by the China Advertising Association to be used by its 2,000 members.

Apple has hit back, threatening to eject apps that use the tool.

“We believe strongly that users should be asked for their permission before being tracked,” the company said. “Apps that are found to disregard the user’s choice will be rejected.”


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