China Has Pioneered a Law To Empower People Over Algorithms

It’s unprecedented in the world

Alberto Romero
OneZero
Published in
7 min readMar 8, 2022

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Image by Alan Warburton / © BBC / Better Images of AI / Virtual Human / CC-BY 4.0

China has just made effective the first law of this kind in history.

Algorithms define our realities. They manipulate our attention and waste our time. We think we don’t want to live without them but end up looking for ways to fight against the strong urge to scroll down on our phones. Tech companies have absolute power over them and don’t respond to the increasingly louder voices asking to revert these unescapable digital prisons.

Algorithms should be subjected to the same rules that govern other new technologies, but the big tech refuses to be held accountable or have its all-important algorithms externally audited.

Now, China has decided to turn the tides. On March 1st they activated a law that will allow users to turn off algorithm recommendations completely, among other unprecedented measures to give people more power over tech. Imagine a world in which Facebook couldn’t show you what it wanted — optimized to keep you engaged — but what you wanted or needed.

That world could soon be our world.

China is leading the way towards a better relationship with algorithms

The new legislation, entitled “Regulations on the Administration of Algorithm Recommendations for Internet Information Services,” was jointly designed by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and another four governmental departments. The law, which the CAC published in January aims to “regulate the algorithm recommendation activities … protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens … and promote the healthy development of Internet information services.”

Relevant to this article is another one I published recently, “In Search of an Algorithm for Well-Being.” I explain how algorithms — recommendation systems in particular — aim to keep users engaged on the apps. The reason is that companies like Facebook or Google enjoy a highly-profitable business model dependent on ad revenue. The more time you spend on the app, the better for them — but not for you.

What I defend in that piece is that we shouldn’t accept this mechanism as an indisputable…

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