China demands internet companies create governance system for algorithms

Beijing will oversee their efforts and how their algos work, to stop code messing up society


China's authorities have called for internet companies to create a governance system for their algorithms.

A set of guiding opinions on algorithms, issued overnight by nine government agencies, explains that algorithms play a big role in disseminating information online and enabling growth of the digital economy. But the guiding opinions also point out that algorithms employed online can also impact society, and financial markets.

China therefore wants to regulate them to make sure it sees only upside.

Machine translations of the opinions reveal Chinese authorities want tech companies to ensure their algorithms are fair, transparent, and protect citizens' rights.

Algorithms are also expected to be politically correct, by promoting proper socialist values, elevating "correct" political directions, and preventing the propagation of content deemed dubious. Code that creates anti-competitive outcomes is not welcome.

To achieve its aims, Beijing expects that algo-wielding organisations will create algorithm governance teams to assess their code and detect any security or ethical flaws. Self-regulation is expected, as is continuous revision and self-improvement.

Chinese authorities will watch those efforts and will be unsparing when they find either harmful algorithms, or less-than-comprehensive compliance efforts. Citizen reports of erroneous algos will inform some regulatory actions.

Organisations have been given three years to get this done, with further guidance to come from Beijing.

China does not permit fully open markets and its government is utterly unafraid to direct private corporations to adopt practices it feels are in the nation's interest – even if they may damage their businesses.

Requiring oversight of algorithms suggests that Beijing is worried on two fronts. First, it's concerned about how automation is already playing out on China's internet. Second, it has observed that western web giants have used algorithms to increase user engagement in ways that amplify misinformation and that have clearly caused considerable real-world harm.

The new regulations are further evidence that Beijing wants to exercise control over what Chinese citizens can see online. That desire has already seen China crack down on depictions of effeminate men, warn fan clubs not to turn mean, ban racy online content aimed at kids, and crack down on computer games – including those that aren't historically accurate – and even advise on what songs make for acceptable karaoke. ®

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