A public spat has erupted recently between two Chinese Internet giants after the country’s most popular chat software, QQ, was found to be harvesting user data; it was exposed by an anti-virus software maker that itself has a shady background. The case illustrates both the opaque nature of Internet regulation in China and how the rights of users get trumped by corporate interests, who often benefit from links to the Party bureaucracy.
In a test conducted by a Shanghai News Daily reporter on Sept. 27, anti-virus software produced by the company Qihoo 360 identified 525 documents that QQ scanned in five minutes, earmarking 110 as potentially compromising the privacy of its users. Files from MSN Instant Messenger, Windows Live Mail, Google Search, and Microsoft Office were among those scanned.
After a backlash from the media and Internet users, QQ [also known as Tencent QQ] was quick to respond that the scanning was for security purposes only. The company then proceeded to sue Qihoo 360 for unfair competition. The news sparked a firestorm on the Chinese Internet, with both QQ and Qihoo 360 on the receiving end of sharp criticism.
Both companies used the discourse of protecting privacy rights to advance their agenda, but bloggers were not convinced: both were accused of being out for financial gain at the expense of user security. QQ has long been rumored of prying into user privacy, and Qihoo 360’s reputation is not much better. Antivirus 360 was developed based on Qihoo 360’s founder Zhou Hongwei’s previous product, 3721, a form of malware that was often force-installed and difficult to remove.
Qihoo 360’s strike against QQ was interpreted by many as a calculated competitive measure, rather than advocacy for consumer rights. The Privacy Protector program was launched shortly after QQ made an aggressive attempt to expand its share in the online securities market: some antivirus programs were installed in users’ computers without the users being notified, according to reports, and QQ was the sole target of the first version of Privacy Protector.
Zhou Shuguang, a well-known blogger, spoke to New Tang Dynasty Television. “I don’t trust QQ, but Qihoo 360 is yet another malware that shows no respect for its users. Neither of them is trustworthy. They are just fighting for profits.” Zhou said he was pleased to see that their conflict is causing more people to realize the importance of online privacy.
Experts have put forward the argument that Chinese Internet companies’ general disregard for user rights is a result of the authorities’ failure to regulate the industry and protect user privacy through legislation. Zhang Chaoyang, founder of China’s leading website Sohu.com, said China’s Internet industry was “a jungle where effective legal regulation is missing.” He views Qihoo 360’s check on QQ as a way to “restrain the evil deeds of a monopoly.”
Electronic Trail Leads to Regime
Jason Ma, a commentator and host for New Tang Dynasty Television, says that QQ’s monopoly is backed by the communist regime, which has been conniving at corporate malfeasance in exchange for cooperation with its sophisticated program of censorship and surveillance.
“Tencent QQ has formed a partnership with the regime: it helps the authorities to monitor all instant messaging. In return, the regime lets it do whatever it wants,” he said.
Tencent QQ has been actively blocking phrases identified as sensitive by Chinese authorities, including on topics such as democracy, Falun Gong, Taiwan independence, and the names of Chinese Communist Party leaders. Tencent’s WebQQ has a feature that allows people to visit Gmail, but the program was found to be storing the user names and their passwords in its server.
Activists have experienced firsthand how such personal information is collected and used by authorities.
Blogger Guo Baofeng was questioned by police in China for publicizing a rape and murder case allegedly perpetrated by a regime-backed gang. They had detailed records of his QQ conversation with a fellow activist. “What Tencent QQ does is exactly the opposite of Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto,” Guo told Radio Free Asia.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Internet commentator Li Li also said that QQ chat records have been used in court against dissidents and human rights activists across the country.
Popular websites and online communication tools developed in the West are increasingly being cloned by regime-friendly Internet companies, creating an online simulacrum of the world outside China for the Chinese public—with the added feature of being equipped with strong censorship and surveillance functions.
QQ is China’s MSN, GTalk, AIM, and Skype, rolled into one. After Google withdrew its search engine from the Chinese market, its competitor, Baidu, gained most of its market share: Baidu is known for its active cooperation with the regime. While Facebook and Twitter have both been blocked, Chinese websites are busy assimilating the concepts.
The Chinese Internet landscape has evolved the way it has because companies that can help the regime realize its ideal of a walled garden in cyberspace often receive ample financial and administrative support, enabling them to quickly form monopolies. Jason Ma maintains that Antivirus 360 will be made China’s dominant security product, replacing foreign brands. He thinks the battle between QQ and Qihoo 360 gives the outside world a glimpse into China’s murky politics of Internet regulation.
Tencent QQ, has one of the most popular online chat forums in the world, boasting over 100 million simultaneous users. Alexa ranked it ninth in October, while Twitter ranked it 10th as the world’s most popular website, though few outside China have heard of it.