Tencent Wants to be the Good Guy
I’m Jordan Schneider, the host of SupChina’s ChinaEconTalk podcast. This week’s episode featured Yang Yi, an independent Chinese podcast producer, on the evolution of audio content in China as well as the differences between the western podcast ecosystem and China’s audio unicorns like Ximalaya. In this newsletter, I translate articles from Chinese media about tech, business, and political economy.
After the government took a huge bite out of Tencent’s earnings by freezing video game monetization approvals, Tencent CEO Pony Ma caught the Corporate Social Responsibility bug. This article, translated in full below, delightfully wanders from online dispute resolution to AI chess and GDPR, all the while meditating on what responsibility tech giants have to society more broadly.
Is China in the midst of its own techlash? Last year’s government crackdowns would point in that direction. After a handful of DiDi drivers murdered their passengers, local governments severely tightened regulation on who could drive a rideshare. Amid addiction concerns, last year government licensing bodies put the entire Chinese gaming industry in a deep freeze.
But a widespread consumer-driven techlash has yet to materialize. Why? Perhaps because Tencent, whose WeChat product is most intertwined with Chinese lives to a greater extent than Facebook is in the west, has yet to have a mega-scandal of its own. While Tencent claims that it doesn’t store messaging data, police clearly have access to chat records, which means hackers will likely someday get to them as well. For now, the focus for Tencent’s CSR is more on appeasing the government than the people. But once WeChat faces its own Cambridge Analytica, Pony Ma will have much more to worry about than delayed game monetization.
I did this translation together with the inimitable Jeffrey Ding of the ChinaAI newsletter. A former guest of ChinaEconTalk, Jeff for the past year has been publishing meaty translations on anything AI and China. A few of my favorite editions include this past week’s deep dive into the history of the Chinese semiconductor space, AI ethics in China, and a work report on now China’s AI ‘National Team’ of Baidu, iFlyTek and others are performing. It’s a great subscribe!
Tencent Wants to Be a Good Guy, 腾讯想做个好人
Author: Zhou Yu (周余) is an editor with Huxiu's unit for original pieces, focused on new consumption, new brands, new lifestyles. Goes by the handle, “an angel who doesn’t invest” (天使不投资人). Published on Huxiu, a major platform for sharing news and thinkpieces on S&T issues, July 24th, 2019.
In 2019, Tencent laid out a new vision and mission: “Tech for Good.” Previously, Tencent’s vision was to be “the most respected Internet enterprise” and its mission was to “improve the quality of life through internet value-added services.” This mission of “improving quality” laid out in the restructuring last year was tragically “replaced” in only half a year.
For those born after 1995 and after 2000, the image of Tencent’s company is probably not the same as that for those born in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether you have ever been charging your phone and criticizing Tencent at the same time will make your perception of this company be very different. After all, the QQ of the past was a pre-installed rainbow diamond, and this lit-up panel icon could trick students to spend half of their spending money on cursed products.
Therefore, "technology for good" is not necessarily a replica of Google's early "Don't be evil." The background context for Google laying out its “Don’t be evil” slogan was a conflict between salespeople and R&D personnel, or potential conflicts in the future. As a technology-led company, Google, with a clear-eyed attitude, stood on the side of R&D, saying that it will not be evil in order to make money. In recent years, with Google showing a pro-government stance that is particularly prominent in American technology companies, this (slogan) is no longer mentioned.
Tencent has always been product-oriented from its beginning years, and the breadth of its product investments is miraculous even today. At this time, it is not very easy to put faith in Tencent’s emphasis on "Not cherishing money." Tencent's “Tech for Good” can only be for commercialization and development- even if the English for 科技向善 (slogan in Mandarin) is "Tech for Social Good".
How did this Vision get so Twisted and Embarrassing?
The meaning of “Tech for Social Good,” according to Tencent Research Institute & speeches from several senior executives of Tencent & and various self-media channels, generally has little to do with business, leaving people with no emotions. These explanations focus on two levels:
1. Philanthropy. This is the first reaction of onlooker netizens, including the majority of Internet practitioners, to the slogan "Tech for Social Good." Some people understand this as purely charitable activities that are not related to business, and some people interpret it as part of Tencent's strategy of “investment without controlling shares” (this is not much different from charity in the industry) in recent years. But in any case, if charity is what guides the company, then I’m afraid that Tencent would only do so if it truly "had no dreams.”
2. Self-Examination. This is the more official explanation of Tencent Research Institute and senior executives. The general idea is that technology, in the course of improving the quality of life, has also brought about troubles that did not exist in the past, such as information overload, online rumors, cyber violence, cybercrime, data security, big data-based price discrimination against your longtime customers, and forced unemployment from AI. The notion that letting technology solve its own problems does not solve the original problems of human society (the core difference with "charity") is the focus of "for social good." However, Tencent’s PR has not yet made a more detailed interpretation. At this stage, it is mainly left to the media.
Tencent first internally laid out its “Tech for Social Good” slogan in 2017. The real first public announcement was at a Tencent Research Institute event on January 20, 2018 (the theme of the event was “Tech for Social Good: Overload”), and Zhang Zhidong, former CTO of Tencent, delivered a speech. By the time "Tech for Social Good" got more large-scale exposure it was already January 11, 2019, at the second annual meeting of Tencent Research Institute, labeled as "Tech for Social Good: Relaunch." At this time Tencent SVP Guo Kaitian gave a speech; a little before Zhang Xiaolong had also publicly stated that "goodness is more important than intelligence."
Pony Ma personally wrote an article titled "Tech for Social Good;" published in a special issue of The Economist ("The World in 2019",) but at that time Pony's interpretation of "Tech for Social Good" was more conservative, only involving the level of charity.
The real "official announcement" was on May 4, 2019, when Pony Ma used an insignificant news article to post a note in Wechat Moments about Tencent’s "new vision and mission," approving the efforts of the research institute for the first time.
But has “Tech for Social Good" actually been “officially announced?”
In fact, digital executives have different interpretations of the core of “Tech for Good,” and a lot of changes have occurred over time (from “charity” to “self-examination.”) Within Tencent, the status of Tencent Research Institute is relatively far from the center, and it is definitely cannot represent Tencent. As for the formal and complete explanation, Tencent’s PR never gave it - and even the official website is too lazy to change the “vision” and “mission section”:
Proposing this new vision -- a process that has taken a year and a half -- is it really this complicated? I have already found so many writings (on this subject) by self-media, has PR still not sorted this out? The words of Pony and Tony are decisive and influential at Tencent . If these two can’t provide a certain message in their speeches, how grand of a proposition can "Tech for Social Good" be?
First of all, can technology be good? Of course not.
"Technology is not good or bad, nor is it neutral." The first and foremost of the six big laws of science and technology states that the position of science and technology is determined by the environment and users. We often use nuclear weapons to prove this law. In the current environment, technology itself has triggered a variety of "new evils"; technology giants becoming monopolies, reviled like Wall Street by the poor, becoming the target of new victims of crime, the “real people” of the Internet and the “digital refugees.” The move toward “social good” will help technology companies get rid of this dilemma.
However, technology itself is not so complicated, and "goodness" is not so simple. Tencent is not a chicken-blooded company. The corporate culture has always advocated objective neutrality, and definitely doesn’t want to carry the burden of "being the one to define goodness.” Therefore, Tencent’s goodness must find a more objective foothold in human society and become a publicly recognized “goodness”.
Or to put it another way -- righteousness.
The Societal Logic of "For Good": Please leave the Difficult Issues to Science and Technology
From the beginning “Tech for Social Good” has a strong ‘Government Relations’ tendency. On June 12th,Study Times published an article titled "Tech for social good should become a common principle of the digital society," authored by Si Xiao.
The author, Si Xiao, has a doctorate of law, and is also the dean of Tencent Research Institute, known by many as Jason. When I talked with Jason about the topic of “Tech for Social Good” at the beginning of the year, I also specifically asked what is the difference between “Tech for Social Good” and traditional “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility). As for his article in the Study Times, Jason no longer deliberately distinguishes the difference between Tech for Good and CSR, but regards the former as part of CSR:
“Tech for social good can be regarded as the unshirkable social responsibility of technology companies, and also presents new opportunities and advantages in the future. After all, in the face of the challenges brought by the digital society, only those companies that actively seek innovative solutions and strictly adhere to creating value for users can gain greater advantages and long-term development in the next round of competition.”
Jason's background in law largely determines the starting point of "Tech for Social Good." In fact, Jason, who was the chief editor of "Tencent Research Institute’s Translated Collections of the Future" series of books, with one book titled Digital Justice: Technology and the Internet of Justice (author: [US] Ethan Katsh, [Israel] Orna Rabinovich-Einy), which summarizes closely-related points in the cited books.
These ideas remind me of the things that have happened repeatedly in the field of technology: disputes are not brought by technology companies, but technology companies that can resolve disputes proactively will take the lead in gaining advantages. (It should be noted that some of the following points draw on Digital Justice).
Although It Can’t be Helped, the Digital World has become an "Extra-Legal Place"
Young netizens may not dare to believe that there was no customer service when e-commerce platforms were initially established. Prior to 1992, online business activities were illegal and most of the online activities were government affairs and academic exchanges. Of course, there were very few Internet users at the time - the early Internet was named ARPAnet by the US National Plan, and ARPAnet only withdrew from the historical stage in 1990.
In summary, after the ban on commerce was lifted, eBay, the originator of e-commerce, was established in 1995. Until 1996, it was really just a “platform.” Regardless of what conflicts between buyers and sellers occurred, they would fight it out amongst themselves, and both eBay and users did not think there was anything wrong with this. At that time, the view of netizens was similar to: If you discovered you had bought fake goods at a department store, would you go (and complain) to the property management company (for that department store)?
But in less than a year, eBay realized that if no one helped resolve these disputes, e-commerce would not be any better than the offline experience. As a result, eBay hired a single (yes, one) employee to handle all disputes, and began to build its own customer service center after expanding its scale, which also helped eBay grow from a newborn calf to a commercial star.
Today's e-commerce will not take this winding path. In fact, their solutions are more savvy: Amazon will intelligently judge in one stroke whether a user can return a product, exchange a product (even saving on the need for customer service all together) based on whether the user is a Prime member, a regular Amazon user, someone who is refunded frequently, and whether the order is not too expensive. As for Alibaba, there are statistics that show more than 99% of the conflicts (on the platform) do not require the intervention of Alibaba’s customer service - both buyers and sellers are worried about their good reviews on the Alibaba platform, in other words their reputation level.
E-commerce is just a microcosm of "scientific and technical solutions being used to resolve scientific and technological disputes." In today's society, there are many multi-level solutions to most of our conflicts: ins some disputes an understanding among the parties can be reached, while those that cannot be resolved are assisted by third party mediatiation (within a small scale). If they escalate more, they will enter the media’s field of vision and the "verdict of the masses." The controversy will enter legal proceedings, yet most of the civil complaints will be settled before reaching court, and disputes that require the prosecution to file a public prosecution are rare...
Especially in the digital field.
Think about it, when using technology products, have you encountered any bugs, or privacy leaks, your identity information being sold, or data errors and losses? Have these problems caused you to suffer economic losses? Will you sue the software company because you encountered a bug? If you experience harassment on the Internet, will you alert the police like when you experience harassment on the street?
Obviously the average person will not take (digital disputes) this seriously. But even if you are really more serious (about digital disputes), you will encounter layers of obstacles: let us not talk about the natural obstacles facing disadvantaged groups — low-income people, single-parent families, disabled people, those with rural hukous - even for the average person, the strict structure of the courts, the complexity of legal knowledge, and the high cost of litigation are all walls that prevent us from getting "justice."
How terrible that science and technology have become another way (to prevent people from getting justice).
We don't intend to discuss here who is right and who is wrong in the Peng Lin v. Huawei suit, but from how hot this video got, we can see how many difficulties there are for the common people to face off against big companies: seeking justice for oneself has no legal effect, professional auditing agencies do not do work for individuals, and the public notary office thinks it is too troublesome to take on this work... often go back to an exclamation from the video: "To buy some oil, buy some grain, buy some tofu, you must become an expert." But mobile phones and software are not as simple as grain and oil!
The court of justice, born in the Middle Ages and reaching its full form in this current era, has always been the representative of societal "justice," but in the scientific and technological society, the vast majority of disputes cannot and should not be pushed to the courts. It is impossible for the judicial system to devote limited time and energy to unlimited dispute resolutions and judgements: any efficient judicial system will only hope to reduce cases to a minimum level so that the court can only deal with disputes that need to be dealt with and avoid wasting public funds ——that Liu Qiangdong (JD.com CEO Richard Liu) was not prosecuted, and that Christensen dares to narrate details about killing Zhang Yingying while at the same time refusing to recognize his own guilt -- these all come from this logic.
In an increasingly complex society, fewer and fewer civilians are able to get access to the courts. On the other hand, if the disciplines (who already have high walls) themselves are “rejecting” (even if not subjective) the judiciary, and how can they demand the judiciary to undertake more comprehensive investigation, deepen involvement, and take more control?
Therefore, all sectors of society need to form their own dispute resolution mechanism, and technology companies are undoubtedly an important part of it. What technology companies have done is just like what happened in the e-commerce case above – keeping the troubles within the platform.
Let Whoever Started the Trouble End It
Disputes in the digital age are like pollution in the industrial age: industrial development itself brings enormous benefits, so the “small problems” of pollution are only taken seriously after years of accumulation.
On the one hand, unlike the limited range of industrial pollution, the Internet and technology are “everywhere”. The boundaries between online and offline are becoming increasingly blurred. After the Internet of Things becomes more integrated into daily life, many tech companies in transportation, medical care, municipal administration, security, and so on will arise. And the technology products themselves have already been causing more and more problems. According to statistics, in the late 1990s, mistakes in American medical software led to hundreds of deaths. As early as 2002, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, software errors caused $59.5 billion in economic losses each year. That number without a doubt has continued to grow– again to emphasize, this was back in 2002.
On the other hand, because information technology is developing rapidly – in the eyes of the government, it is almost too fast. In the field of science and technology, regardless of production materials (especially users and data) or knowledge, it is monopolized by large companies, and the government has very little accumulated (experience) in this area. Therefore, once the disputes in the digital domain are turned over to traditional methods of dispute resolution, there will always be ridiculous scenes: the Wang Xin of Qvod and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have been asked stupid questions by prosecutors or officials along the lines of, "Then have you memorized the code?"
If these incidents were just jokes that would be okay but what’s worse is that government intervention often leads to a disaster both companies and users. For instance, the US government has a god-level amount of potential influence over Huawei; As a result of Google and Facebook’s privacy and data security issues, the EU has rushed headlong into the ill-considered GDPR. The United States is even more determined, considering the direct breaking up of technology giants.
Back to Tencent itself, what is the background context behind its game business suffering sound setbacks? The government has been obsessed with anti-addiction for so many years, have the issues of (game) overload for underage children been solved? Why do some adults shout out for "managing the game, to save the child," while others shout "manage the child, save the game?"
‘The ordinary man is innocent but his talent arouses envy.’ It’s the netizens, not the social networks, who make rumors, threats, and filthy speech. It’s the merchants, not the e-commerce platform, who sell fake stuff. These things are clear offline, but once it's online, the dynamic changes. What’s great about internet companies is also what makes them terrible: the low-margin, scalable Internet models mean that their errors and leaks are equally easy to spread and grow. Once the isolated error enters the digital domain, it is no longer isolated; in addition to harming the individual, it will interfere with broader research, analysis and decision-making, thus affecting the country and society overall.
This does not mean that technology companies are hapless. In fact, they have gained too much from this era: financially, the market value and income of the explosion, culturally the darling of the times, the focus of society, and politically, the remote control of the people. Otherwise, Facebook and Twitter would not get mixed up in political issues. Don't forget that two consecutive U.S. presidential elections were mixed up in social media-related issues.
With great power comes great responsibility. There’s an old legal principle: ‘for every right, there is a remedy; when there is no remedy, there is no right.’ If we use the perspective of Rawls's "Theory of Justice", as a technology company in the digital age of "natural aristocracy", it is necessary to sacrifice for social well-being.
Tencent is not the only one who has foresight. The e-commerce platforms are flanked by geniuses, and other "monopolists" have taken some actions. Steam has been criticized poor conflict resolution, unable to resolve disputes between developers and players, and they launched an online comment screening mechanism afterwards. Various apps lag behind in legal protections, laying out 30,000 character user agreements upon registration (“if there are any issues, let’s close the door and talk it out”). Plug-ins and hackers ruin the gaming experience, and so these have pushed informing against offenders and underworld layers, ensuring resentment stays in the game. Wikipedia often has various conflicts over editing, and it has launched complicated editing specifications, self-testing, and error correction mechanisms to enable algorithms to take the role of people in maintaining order.
To independently open up relief in the name of "justice" is to allow the justice of the digital age reach the vulnerable groups and reach more people, in order to avoid the "the nonprofessionals leading the experts" and even “the unprofessional adjudicating the experts” when disputes arise. The specific method is to establish a dispute resolution mechanism and a ruling system within the field of science and technology, to build the goodness of science and technology, and the justice of science and technology itself, namely:
Code is the law, code is the process. The law is being code-ized. The administration of justice is being programmed and code-ized.
Can bottom-up rules overtake the top-down rules? If the former are used to regulate 99.9% of the disputes, and impact the vast majority of the population, and brought justice to the many weak people who were blocked by the "Gatekeeper" in the Kafka novel "The Trial", perhaps it will end up delivering a more reliable form of ‘justice’ than traditional judicial systems.
Can Technology Companies Make Amends?
Can Tencent answer all of the government’s questions? No one can say for sure, but I can tell you a story about their anti-game addiction:
Tencent doesn’t just make colorful games aimed at young people. It should be noted that there are many traditional chess games in the QQ game lobby. After the rise of the AI era, AlphaGO became a hit, and many chess AIs also registered player IDs and sneaked into the chess platform for “self-learning”.
Over time, some chess friends realized that if they got on a hotstreak they would quickly encounter an unreasonably powerful opponent. Within a few seconds, they would be killed. No matter how many times the opponent is challenged, the friend will get demolished, and eventually stop playing.
Chess friend groups would start wondering: Is that opponent an AI? Since everyone has the same experience just as they’re most engrossed in the game, some joked that this AI may be a Tencent's anti-addiction measure?
Tencent certainly denies this, and I believe Tencent will not apply such immature and controversial technology. But it is undeniable that AI has done what the government, society, and parents have not done for many years: the strength to persuade (players to give up the game), so that players are no longer addicted.
If you believe in the possibility of technology, I believe that as long as human society continues to develop solutions to old problems, you will not doubt the potential of "science and technology justice" or that "technology for social good."
So we have to answer another question: Why do you want to do this, why should you focus on establishing ODR (Online Dispute Resolution Mechanism), and not other approaches?
One thing is actually hurting BAT. In the past, when it came to the technology giants, everyone was in the same boat as Tencent and Alibaba. So why is it that as soon as Trump came along, the pressure went to Huawei?
In the current economic cycle, pure Internet companies are really not a big deal, especially those with limited international business. Therefore, Tencent also started to focus on other things, for instance, the "Industrial Internet" that was also announced by Ma Huateng during the restructuring of last year.
The industrial Internet is a form of extending the Internet to industry, “leaving the virtual world to go toward the real world,” to say it plainly, industry sectors are the point of emphasis, whereas the Internet is just “adding frosting on top.” Else, it would just continue the dismissal of the overworn street saying, “Internet +,” in the era of dual innovation.
Internet companies have not been so good these years, not for specific companies, but for the growth of search engines, e-commerce and games in China, which have slowed down significantly. And the new growth point has not yet arrived. At present, we have not seen any big companies plugging the future into VR, AR, AI, blockchain... These new concepts haven’t caught fire over the past few years.
When there is no hope for rapid growth, traditional enterprises will say that they “optimize the structure”, “improve efficiency”, “improve logic” and “cultivate internal strength”... Back when the internet was at its peak, they were saying things like “technology for social good.” To put it bluntly, the biggest reason for the slow growth is that the demographic dividend has subsided and the cost of user acquisition has skyrocketed. Nowadays, whoever can rely on their old reliable users at least won’t be in "negative growth"; whoever repeatedly disappoints their users will just give other companies their “growth.”
Only another Tencent can beat Tencent. Only another Google can beat Google. We look forward to a Google that respects the "right to be forgotten", a Facebook that does not interfere with politics, and effective anti-addiction measures in videogames - if there is a Tencent better than today's Tencent, even if there aren’t new users to fight over, this ‘New Tencent’ could naturally come out on top.
In the process of barbaric growth of Internet companies, users have paved the way for the highways of the mobile Internet era. But if we look back at the excellent infrastructure underlying these conditions, we will find that there are some Teslas, some BMWs, some Tianjin Xialis, and sometimes there are several bicycles mixed in, and some horse-drawn carriages and donkey-carts, all coming together to make some serious congestion.
Establishing the right traffic rules for today's digital realm, rather than rushing to expand the miles of new roads, is the most important thing for the big players.
Thanks for reading!
You can contact me on twitter at jordanschnyc, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on wechat at jordanschneider.