At China’s In­ter­net con­fer­ence, the darker side of tech­nol­ogy emerges

The Hindu Business Line - - IT & TELECOM - NEW YORK TIMES NYT

Ev­ery year at the World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence, held since 2014 Wuzhen near Shang­hai, com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have con­vened to send a mes­sage: China is a hi-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 counter-ter­ror­ism ef­forts.

New chal­lenges

“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 A re­mote trol­ley un­veiled at the World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence

man­age­ment depart­ment, said at the event.

The con­fer­ence also re­flected some new chal­lenges fac­ing China. It was held at the same time as an­other big event: A six­day im­port expo in Shang­hai aimed at show­ing China as a big buyer of for­eign goods. With US tar­iffs threat­en­ing to slow a weak­en­ing Chi­nese econ­omy, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping spoke at the expo to pro­claim that China could be a pos­i­tive force in global trade.

At Wuzhen, by con­trast, Xi ap­peared only by proxy. The head of the Com­mu­nist Party’s pro­pa­ganda depart­ment, Huang Kun­ming, con­veyed a mes­sage of thanks from Xi and then de­liv­ered an open­ing ad­dress that ex­tolled the world-chang­ing power of in­ter­net ac­cess.

Emis­saries from the Sil­i­con Val­ley were also in short sup­ply. Last year, the speak­ers at Wuzhen in­cluded Tim Cook, Ap­ple’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, as well as Sun­dar Pichai of Google. This year, the sole West­ern tech ex­ec­u­tive to give a key­note ad­dress was Steve Mol­lenkopf, chief ex­ec­u­tive of chip­maker Qual­comm. His ap­pear­ance served as a re­minder of US com­pa­nies’ con­tin­u­ing tra­vails in China, which could deepen as the two pow­ers wres­tle over hi-tech supremacy. Qual­comm scrapped a $44-bil­lion deal to buy a Dutch chip man­u­fac­turer this year af­ter China’s an­titrust au­thor­i­ties de­clined to ap­prove it, a move widely viewed as re­tal­i­a­tion in the trade war.

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.

In the con­fer­ence’s ex­hi­bi­tion halls, there were lighter touches to be found. A com­pany called Utry let loose sev­eral ea­ger, if herky-jerky, ro­bots that fol­lowed peo­ple around on wheels, of­fer­ing to carry their

Bei­jing-based IrisKing, has sub­stan­tial state back­ing, started out by mak­ing iris-recog­ni­tion soft­ware for coal mines. With their faces and fin­ger­tips cov­ered in soot, min­ers needed an­other tech­nol­ogy for clock­ing in and out of work.

The com­pany has also started work­ing with the au­thor­i­ties in Xin­jiang, Wang said. The goal? To have a database of the irises of all Xin­jiang res­i­dents within two years, he said.

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