China peeks at tech firms’ algorithms
Good morning! In an unprecedented move, big Chinese tech companies shared some of their algorithms with China’s internet watchdog. Whether this leads to the U.S. requesting the same info from Big Tech remains to be seen.
Chinese tech's secret sauce
Tech companies’ algorithms are typically heavily guarded. But for the first time, China’s internet watchdog released details of how the sausage gets made inside Chinese tech companies. The details are limited, but they’re a good place to start.
The Cyberspace Administration of China released a list of 30 algorithms used by companies including ByteDance and Alibaba, along with a brief description of each algorithm’s purpose.
- WeChat’s "take a look" algorithm, for example, is used in recommendations for graphic and video content. And ByteDance’s algorithm takes likes and dislikes into consideration when serving content on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
- It’s worth noting that the list doesn’t include the actual code, just the names and filing numbers of each algorithm, which social media consultant Matt Navarra told me is unsurprising. “It would be strange for these platforms to be required by the regulator in China to publicly disclose this intellectual property because it would somewhat destroy the value in some of its homemade technological success stories,” he told me.
- Navarra added that in private, though, these tech companies may have explained their algorithms in much more detail, like how they update code and how the algorithms are used.
The list could prompt other governments to request similar information from tech companies.
- TikTok, which only operates outside China, wasn’t required to share information with the agency (although a document leaked a few months ago gives us a clue about how it works). ByteDance has said the operations behind TikTok and Douyin are completely separate, at the request of the U.S.
- The U.S. and European Union haven’t introduced any laws around recommendation algorithms like the one that compelled Chinese firms to talk about their algorithms, but lawmakers have had their eyes on platforms’ inner workings. Some lawmakers are growing frustrated that the Biden administration hasn’t taken more steps to police data practices by TikTok and other Chinese platforms.
- In fact, TikTok has asked Oracle to start vetting TikTok's algorithms and content moderation models to assure the U.S. that the short-form video app isn't manipulated by Chinese authorities."
The next step for the Chinese regulator might be to reign in tech platforms even more. Meanwhile, regulators in the U.S. are just starting to understand how platforms in their own country work.
— Sarah Roach
YouTube's helping hand
YouTube is starting a streaming video marketplace, which, if done right, could give a bump to streaming companies as they grapple with slowing subscriber growth.
YouTube is in talks with various streaming services to be included in the “channel store,” as the project is called internally, according to The Wall Street Journal. The store would allow YouTube TV customers to subscribe to different services through the main YouTube app. YouTube TV includes the option to add on a package of subscription services; the channel store would let users subscribe a la carte.
Streaming services could use the boost in subscribers, as customer retention numbers get worse and worse.
- Around 19% of subscribers to premium services like Netflix, Hulu or Apple TV+ said they canceled three or more subscriptions in the last two years.
- Many are subscribing to services to watch certain shows, then canceling after the season ends.
The increase in subscribers won’t likely be “game-changing,” Protocol’s Janko Roettgers told me. YouTube’s streaming service buffet would be competing with similar offerings from Amazon, Roku, Apple and now maybe even Walmart.
- But convenience is the name of the game. For example, Amazon’s channel store was a hit because the company made it easy to subscribe to new channels through the Fire TV interface. The platform already had its customers’ credit card information, Janko said.
- If YouTube integrates its marketplace with Android TV or Google TV, it could “simplify that sign-up flow” and make the process more seamless, Janko said. And that could lead to more subscribers.
— Nat Rubio-Licht
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