While Chinese Internet users are benefiting from the rapidly developing mobile applications and high–tech services, many of them find themselves facing a tough dilemma: The more they are indulged with the ever–changing mobile applications, the more they find their privacies being taken advantage of and exploited. From their contact information to their spending habits, users are losing their privacies to the growing tech firms at a pace faster than their imaginations.
The recent backlash on Facebook’s scandal over user information has made media and users across the ocean start to re–evaluate the rarely discussed topic of reaching the balance between user privacy and tech benefits. As a developing nation, China has yet to establish a comprehensive set of rules to protect individual privacy against predatory tech firms, not to mention the majority of Internet users who are unaware of their private information acquired by the apps they use.
A recent remark made by Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, seems to have put the troubling privacy issue into a more heated spot: In a development forum, Rolin Li spoke about Chinese users’ view on personal privacy, saying that the Chinese users are ‘less sensitive’ to trading away their privacies for more conveniences. Li’s comments on users’ privacy receive strong negative feedbacks and criticisms. State Media criticizes Baidu’s intent to exploit users’ privacy for additional profits.
Baidu’s Public Relation spokesperson claims that Baidu values users’ privacy and will not take advantage of users who voluntarily share their personal information with the corporation. However, Li’s view still implies the largest search engines in China does not see privacy protection as part of its social responsibilities: Making an excuse on users’ sensitivity will not exonerate the wrongdoings that may happen on abusing users’ privacy.
Baidu’s reputation on user information protection was notorious due to several serious scandals in recent years. From endorsing fake medical advertisements to facing official lawsuits from customer protection associations, Baidu’s public image on users’ privacy is far from being a promising and responsible firm.
However, among the Chinese Internet hegemons, Baidu is certainly not the only guilty firm. Many other firms, including Tencent, Alibaba, Jinri Toutiao and Didi Chuxing are all accused of certain levels of privacy exploitations. From monitoring text messages to illegally selling order histories and social media information, Chinese tech firms seem to have interest in acquiring user information to the best they can.
#DeleteWeChat is not happening in China
To respond to the unethical action behavior conducted by Facebook, a #deletefacebook movement was initiated by Internet Users worldwide to punish the wrongdoings done by this once-dominant social media platform. Seeing such online campaign going on, users in China may possibly start a #deleteWeChat movement. By all means, users have the right to do so.
However, most Chinese mobile applications do not allow users to permanently delete their accounts. And applications require users to sign up with a valid phone number. As most phone numbers are registered under government-issued identification card, users are using Chinese Internet applications in their real names, leaving more personal private information at risk.
In addition, users’ dependency on key mobile applications becomes a serious issue.
While Internet Users in America use mobile phones and texting to stay in touch with families and friends, WeChat users are certainly not ready to go back to the traditional mode of communication. In a related article published by The New York Times, Chinese Internet users find it difficult to disconnect themselves from WeChat and Taobao. The dominant shape and social connections formed on WeChat and the economic benefits to stay on TaoBao is simply too good to quit. These applications make users look like drug addicts: They know it is not good to continue using it, but they simply cannot resist the needs.
Unlike Facebook, which is somehow distant from real life, WeChat has deeply integrated into Chinese people’s daily life routine. Not only serves as a communication application, WeChat can also become an effective tool in calling taxis, paying for consumptions, and ordering takeout food deliveries. WeChat certainly did a better job in monopolizing its business and somehow manipulating its users to live and behave in the way that fits the interest of the product.
Although it sounds offensive, Robin Li’s was probably right on his perspective of the Chinese Internet Users. They are indeed not that sensitive to protecting their privacies. The voluntary donation of their personal information made Tencent a dominant Internet Hegemon, and made Alibaba a dominant E-Commerce Giant.
Although Vulnerable, Try not to Get Hurt
Users are the victims of information theft. Under such level of asymmetric information, there is little that users can do to protect their own privacies against tech hegemons who have a greater say on the rules. For most users, they should have a rather realistic expectation on the potential damage that is there on the Internet: Just by using certain applications, users need to expect their information to be obtained by some groups or organizations.
It never hurts to make informed judgments. With massive amount of information available on the Internet, many users may fall into traps and scams spreading in the world of Internet. While some of the scams may sound real: They could easily know who you are and collect many of your personal information through your own hand. It is always wise to stay vigilant and stay against potential threats coming from the Internet.
Unfortunately, in this developing country and the developing economy, the battle against tech hegemons rarely ends with victories. However, despite being extremely vulnerable, it is never wrong to try not to get hurt.