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2018-03-27 13:34:18

A single quote about data privacy has caused tremendous controversy among Chinese netizens.

“I think Chinese people are more open and less sensitive about the privacy issue,” Robin Li, CEO and co-founder of internet giant Baidu, said Monday during a talk at the 2018 China Development Forum in Beijing. “If they are able to trade privacy for convenience, for safety, for efficiency — in a lot of cases, they’re willing to do that.”

Li’s sentiments ruffled feathers almost immediately. “It’s so shameless and underhanded,” commented one user on microblog platform Weibo below a video of the talk. “It’s sad that a person like this has become a key opinion leader and an industry role model.”

Li Ling, a 25-year-old photographer based in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that she, for one, is not prepared to trade her privacy for convenience. “This is an arbitrary assumption about [Baidu’s] entire community of users,” she said of the CEO’s comments.

But other commentators say Li is simply stating facts. Wang Weilin, a Beijing resident with a master’s degree in communications, pointed out that people who use Baidu Maps seem to have no problem disclosing their geographic location, and that many people are willing to trade their contact information in exchange for coupons on e-commerce platforms. “As an industry insider, Robin Li has quite a lot of data,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “So any conclusions he draws may actually be quite accurate.”

While China does in fact have legislation protecting personal privacy, it’s not particularly specific when it comes to attaching a legal definition to “personal data privacy,” Feng Chucheng of risk analysis firm Blackpeak told Sixth Tone. Chinese people generate troves of data every day through mobile payments, food deliveries, ride-hailing, and other industries, Feng explained. “In fact, open access to user data has fueled China’s surging internet industry for the past five, six, even 10 years,” he added.

To experts like Feng, privacy is effectively personal intellectual property, and netizens are constantly faced with decisions about the information they’re willing to disclose. In terms of corporate responsibility, Feng said, China still has a long way to go — and any efforts to protect privacy will have to involve cooperation between companies and citizens.

“Rather than simply reflecting [the status quo] that privacy protections are not well-developed in this society,” Feng said, “[Baidu] should be leading the charge to improve privacy rights.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Baidu CEO and co-founder Robin Li attends the 2017 Baidu World conference in Beijing, Nov. 16, 2017. VCG)