Internet giants of China from Tencent Holdings to ByteDance have shared details of their valuable algorithms with Beijing for the first time, an unprecedented move aimed at curbing data abuse that could eventually breach closely guarded corporate secrets.

The Internet watchdog on Friday published a list describing 30 algorithms that firms including Alibaba Group and Meituan use to collect user data, tailor personalized recommendations and serve content. While the public listing did not reveal the actual code, it was unclear to what extent Internet firms could disclose their underlying software to regulators privately.

The algorithms that decide which TikTok videos, WeChat messages and Instagram photos are seen by users are considered the secrets of many online services, which are critical to attracting users’ attention and driving growth. China in March passed rules requiring internet firms to disclose such tools, an effort to address complaints of data abuse that also helps regulators keep internet firms on a tighter leash.

“The information provided by the companies to the CAC is much more detailed than what was clearly published, and it includes some business secrets that cannot be disclosed to the public,” said Zhai Wei, Competition’s executive director. Center for Legal Studies at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.

The technology industry’s algorithms are jealously guarded and at the center of political controversy around the world. This disclosure requirement sets China apart from countries like the US, where Meta Platforms and Google have successfully argued that algorithms are trade secrets, even as lawmakers and activists seek to better understand how they curate content and manage data.

The Cyberspace Administration of China is only asking for basic information from companies for now, but it may request more information to investigate allegations of data breaches, Zhai added. The publication of the list means the implementation process is going smoothly, said Ding Mengdan, a lawyer at the Hangzhou office of the Beijing Yingke law firm.


China is tightening regulations to curb the once rampant expansion of the country’s tech giants. Last year, the country introduced the Personal Information Protection Act and the Data Security Act to establish stricter rules for companies’ handling of user data.

The list of algorithms available for public review is limited to brief descriptions of how they work and the product and use cases where they apply. For example, ByteDance says its algorithm determines what users like and don’t like to recommend content on apps including short-form video platform Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese cousin. Meituan says its algorithms help send food orders to riders in the most efficient way based on their downtime and delivery route.

Under the rules, companies must also provide non-public information to the CAC, including a self-assessment of the security of the algorithms, the data they collect, whether it covers sensitive biometric or personal information, and what data sources are used to train the algorithm. The CAC — which issued the guidelines jointly with the Ministry of Industry and IT, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Market Regulation Administration — said it would continue to update the list. — Jane Zhang, (c) 2022 Bloomberg LP

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