A tale of two Chinas: Our tech governance isn't perfect, but we still get to say no

Too many folks who should know better saying info-slurping tactics of Big Tech are just as bad

Opinion Which China do you want? The innovative good global citizen, adding to the storehouse of knowledge while making better products and services? Or the autocracy, determined to advance the interests of the leadership through any and all means, untrammeled by legal safeguards within its borders and, wherever possible, outside them?

This week, we saw both sides on the same day. They cannot both be true, even if on the face of things they look compatible. 

Good China first. Alibaba Cloud researchers, in conjunction with South Korean owned Solidisk, presented a paper at a conference about making cloud servers work better. Only flashy because it uses flash memory, it's a deep-in-the-stack storage caching scheme that doubles how many VMs can run on a server. The paper sets out clearly what the problems are, how they're fixed, and what results were found. The idea is in production and there's an open source implementation if you want to give it a go.

This is a model of how corporate research can and should be shared. If its claims are accurate – taken at face value, like all unreviewed research – then Alibaba Cloud gains status for its products and its researchers, more SSDs will be sold, and everyone gets cheaper, faster cloudiness. If it doesn't work, or has more limited applications than at first appear, little has been lost – you are free to make of it what you will. Plus, new thinking about data caching at scale is always welcome. Who knows what ideas might spark off. 

Let's move on to Bad China. On the same day as Alibaba Cloud's story, an Australian think tank published a warning that Beijing is helping itself to huge amounts of behavioral and other user data from the country's big tech firms. This data is being used at scale to improve state propaganda and disinformation, primary tools in the control of its own citizens and the influencing of those elsewhere. You won't find any Chinese researchers writing this up for publication, but the control the Chinese Communist Party exerts over all commercial operations is deep rooted and well documented. 

The report itself [PDF] goes into the legal, structural and evidential details behind its conclusion, but one underlying fact is that the Chinese state can do what it likes with Chinese businesses, without limitation, and they can do nothing to protect themselves. It doesn't even matter if you are the CEO of an outfit that follows the rules; if you get too powerful or make the wrong friends you can be vanished. It's not a matter of whether or not the CCP is making maximum use of its powers. Why on earth would it not?

The only sane response as an individual, company or a state is to avoid as much Chinese tech as possible, especially if it can collect data. It's not just the great wash of personal data that's fuel to the boiler of Chinese policy, it would be astonishingly foolish for any sensitive data to touch products or services under the control of the Chinese state - which is to say, all of them.

This is a very hard line to take, and many look for reasons to reject it. One of the most pernicious excuses is "the West is just as bad," citing the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement between the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or the predatory data sins of our own dastardly Big Tech.

There is one point of true equivalence between the West and China here: everyone involved operates at the limits of their powers to pursue their aims. The difference is, with China those limits don't exist. Elsewhere, they do, they matter and we pretend otherwise at our peril. Like China, there is a Good West and a Bad West: unlike China, we still get to choose. 

Which is not to say that powerful Western entities never overstep their legal limits. History is brimming with bad behavior by spies and suits - when they think they can get away with it. It is hard to rein them in, but we do it, again and again. They can be embarrassed, they can be taken to court, they can be brought to heel. If you are a citizen of a democratic nation, you can blow the doors off. Pretending you can't, so it doesn't matter, is a wonderful way to avoid the responsibility of actually doing something. It is also highly dangerous, especially if discrediting democracy is a primary aim of powerful adversaries. 

We in tech are right at the front line. We understand what can happen and what is happening. We cannot pretend not to know the why. ®

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