Chinese internet companies Baidu and Tencent have ranked poorly in a global corporate accountability index. Their performance reflects a restrictive environment which makes it difficult for them to respect freedom of expression and privacy, non-profit research initiative Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) said.

Released last week, the annual index evaluated 22 companies for their disclosure of policies and practices that affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy.

Ranking Digital Rights
Photo: Ranking Digital Rights project.

Baidu ranked last among internet and mobile companies with a score of just 13 per cent, and Tencent ranked third last with the same score as Russia’s

They were assessed on 35 indicators in three categories, which include factors such as whether the company publicly commits to respecting freedom of expression and privacy, its disclosure of internal mechanisms to promote such rights, its publication of data on government requests, and disclosure of the company’s collection of user information.

Based on the indicators, Baidu received 0 per cent for governance, 13 per cent for freedom of expression, and 17 per cent for privacy.

Ranking Digital Rights
Photo: Ranking Digital Rights project.

Tencent received 9 per cent on governance, 14 per cent on freedom of expression, and 13 per cent on privacy.

RDR found that Tencent disclosed much more information than Baidu about its policies affecting users’ rights, and both companies were more open about policies related to policy than those related to freedom of expression.

“Chinese officials and state think tanks have on multiple occasions equated the advocacy of online freedom of expression with foreign interference in China’s media ecosystem, creating a strong disincentive for Chinese companies to make explicit commitments to respect users’ freedom of expression,” RDR’s report said.

“State secrets laws make it unrealistic to expect companies to disclose information about government requests to remove content or share user information, causing Chinese companies to perform poorly on Index indicators that reward maximum transparency about government requests.”

Though China’s laws and regulations restricting speech on the internet make it difficult for Chinese companies to be globally competitive in protecting users’ rights in these areas, the discrepancy between the two companies’ scores means there is room for Chinese companies to compete on protecting user information, it said.

There is no legal obstacle to disclosing information about how the company handles user information, and to implementing security measures to protect this information, it added, urging companies to be as transparent as possible with users about how their information is handled and about how they handle requests for user information from non-government parties.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.