Comic Chatbot Errors in China Mask Serious Corporate Caving on Censorship

 | Aug 03, 2017 | 11:00 AM EDT
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Tencent, Microsoft MSFT and Action Alerts PLUS charity portfolio holding Apple (AAPL) have all in the last five days learned the hard way that in China, software is power.

Tech companies that might put up a fight elsewhere over content restrictions or access to their products crumble in the face of the Communist Party. With Web restrictions tightening in China, the issue is only going to gain in prominence, and the ranks of companies caving are likely to grow.

Comically, Tencent (TCEHY) has removed chatbots developed by Microsoft and Beijing-based Turing Robot after they started giving so-called unpatriotic answers.

The BabyQ bot co-developed by Beijing-based Turing Robot answered the question "Do you love the Communist Party?" with "No," the Financial Times reports. The XiaoBing bot from Microsoft (MSFT) reportedly told users: "My China dream is go to America."

On a more serious note, Apple came under fire for removing VPN-related apps from its app store. VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, can help Chinese citizens get around the stringent government controls of Web content to access overseas information.

Apple says it was merely complying with tightened Chinese regulations. But there was none of the defiance that Apple showed when it fought back on home soil against a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone, as the agency investigated the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

The president of Golden Frog, which saw its privacy software VyprVPN knocked off the Apple app tree in China, said it was "disappointed" Apple bowed to pressure from Beijing, without even citing the specific law that makes a VPN illegal.

"We view access to Internet in China as a human rights issue, and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profits," Sunday Yokubaitis told The New York Times. Golden Frog filed an amicus brief in support of Apple's action against the FBI.

The pulling of the chatbots is no surprise. They were likely tricked into giving their answers by users, just as provocative Twitter comments helped swindle Microsoft's Tay bot into making anti-Semitic and offensive comments such as "feminism is cancer."

But online access is a mounting concern. (AMZN) , too, appears to be under pressure in China over its cloud computing services. One of Amazon's operators in China has told its customers to stop using software that would let someone get around China's controls.

Cloud computing is an increasingly thorny issue for the Chinese government, since it raises the potential for controversial content to be held outside China. In response, China is insisting that companies operating data services store the data within China's borders, ostensibly on public safety grounds. Banking data, for instance, could go missing.

But we know the real reason. It's so China can regulate what its citizens see, in a bid to control what they think, particularly on issues concerning the Communist Party and its unelected authority to govern.

The perils of operating in China are many, but top among them would be running afoul of the Communist Party. Bloomberg has given in by suppressing touchy news stories about Chinese officials, such as this non-working link to its own story once about the wealth of the family Chinese President Xi Jinping. Most companies capitulate. Chinese yuan are too good to give up.

Google, and now its parent Alphabet (GOOGL) , has been the only major company that springs to mind that has taken a stand against Chinese censorship. It pulled its search engine from China, redirecting traffic to its uncensored Hong Kong engine, in 2010 in a fight over China's censorship rules. The company is reportedly in talks to get access in China for some of its offerings, such as Google Scholar.

There are plenty of sites you can't access in China, including Facebook , Pinterest and Snapchat. But many would like to get in, given the chance. For instance, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been happy to chat with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Mandarin and post this Facebook photo of the two together.

You'd think online censorship is a battle destined to fail. Web access only grows with the production of every new digital site, app and device, while content proliferates faster exponentially.

But the Chinese government fights hard. And while they may know they're not getting the full truth, many of China's citizens believe a large amount of what they're told.

The Chinese government orchestrates 488 million fake social-media posts every year, according to a study led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King. In many cases, the government pays the equivalent of $0.08 for people who post comments cheer-leading for China, talking about the Communist Party's revolutionary history, or supporting the regime.

The first thing I do every time I visit mainland China is to log in to the hotel's WiFi and search for "Tiananmen Square." Here in Hong Kong, the Chinese government's 1989 massacre of students protesting in favor of democracy pops right up. It's appeared at a couple of Chinese hotels, too, presumably because the Chinese government hadn't yet paid them a digital visit.

Hong Kong and Macau are the only parts of China with their own rules on issues like censorship. Macau, relying on Beijing's approval of mainland travel visas to prop up its casino business, toes the party line. For now, I'm free to say what I want from my base in Hong Kong, but that freedom of expression is also disappearing, and fast.

The new administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, known for her stubborn streak and devotion to Beijing in equal parts, is under pressure to resurrect a highly unpopular "national education" curriculum, viewed by many teachers as patriotic airbrushing and brainwashing. It is also likely to attempt to introduce a "security" law, which by outlawing "sedition and subversion" will obliterate that theoretical freedom of speech. 

It would certainly make it illegal for Hong Kong politicians to suggest that they support autonomy or independence for Hong Kong. To "challenge the power of the central government" or "endanger China's sovereignty," both terms that can and will be interpreted broadly, "crosses a red line."

That's what Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kongers on his July 1 visit to "celebrate" the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's reversion to China. Freedom of speech only allows you to say, it seems, what the Communists want you to say.

In China, it determines what you can read, see and hear online. Don't question authority, and don't get any upstart ideas.

That applies as much at the corporate level as the personal. Even providing the platform, the software, on which to express controversial sentiments crosses a very ill-defined line.

Will other companies take a stand like Google? Or will they all cave?

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