Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has come under fire over the way it handles user data, in an episode that underscores growing concerns for privacy in the hyper-digitised country.
Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial was forced to apologise on Wednesday, after users said they felt they were misled into allowing its Alipay service to share data about their spending habits with its credit-scoring arm and other third-party services.
Controlled by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, Ant Financial provides mobile payment, lending, and credit services to millions of Chinese consumers, and the controversy has featured prominently in China’s state-controlled media this week.
Consumers have come to expect a lack of privacy in a country where the government collects a file of personal data on each person including financial, education and other information, and where video surveillance is widespread.
Many Chinese internet users reacted with an unusual outrage after learning that Alipay, which is used by millions daily to make mobile and online purchases on Alibaba’s Taobao platform and elsewhere, had automatically checked a box and hidden language showing they agreed to share their data.
“It’s just like Taobao profiting from selling our information, there’s no way to refuse!” one user of China’s Twitter-like Weibo service complained.
The sale of personal information is common in China, which last year implemented a controversial cybersecurity law that among other things requires services to store user data in China and receive approval from users before sharing their details.
“Because lots of information is already out there, everyone thinks there is no way to protect our personal information,” said Yue Shenshan, the lawyer whose online posts helped highlight the Ant Financial issue.