Home / At China’s Internet Conference, a Darker Side of Tech Emerges

At China’s Internet Conference, a Darker Side of Tech Emerges

WUZHEN, China — Every year at the World Internet Conference, held since 2014 in the photogenic canal town of Wuzhen near Shanghai, companies and government officials have convened to send a message: China is a high-tech force to be reckoned with.

With that message now settled beyond much doubt, this year’s conference showcased something different. China’s tech industry is becoming more serious about grappling with its products’ unintended consequences — and about helping the government.

Discussions of technology’s promise were leavened with contemplation of its darker side effects, such as fraud and data breaches. A forum on protecting personal information featured representatives from China’s highest prosecutor and its powerful internet regulator. And several tech companies pledged their support for Beijing’s counterterrorism efforts, even as China faces international criticism for detaining and indoctrinating Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism in the western region of Xinjiang.

“Tencent has been dedicated to dealing with terrorist information online and other internet crimes, in line with the government’s crackdown,” Chen Yong, an executive in Tencent’s security management department, said at the event.

Among Chinese companies this week, private enterprises showed off the ways in which they increasingly support and work with the government, while state-backed companies demonstrated they were not doomed to be tech laggards.

The Tencent executive, Mr. Chen, described in an interview the company’s relationship with law enforcement.

Political activists have reported being followed based on what they have said on WeChat. Chat records have turned up as evidence in court, fueling speculation about whether Tencent, the app’s developer, may be the source.

Mr. Chen said Tencent reports illegal activity discovered on its platforms to the government, after which the authorities can request specific user information. Metadata describing when and where users logged into a Tencent app can be stored for up to six months, he said. But Mr. Chen denied that the company gave law enforcement officials a back door through which they could freely peruse chat records and user data.

“We only store the content that the law prescribes,” he said. “However long the law says to store it, that’s how long we store it. Whatever the law says to store, that’s what we store.”


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