China urges US tech firms to sign controversial data pledge

China urges US tech firms to sign controversial data pledge
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China is pressing major American firms to sign a pledge that could require them to give Beijing access to user data and intellectual property, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The document, distributed this summer, asks companies to promise they will store Chinese user data within the country. It also asks companies to pledge that their products are “secure and controllable,” a highly contentious phrase that critics say will give Beijing officials guaranteed access to encrypted data or even source code.

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The pledge is another example of the difficult decisions Western firms are forced to make when operating within China. In order to be granted access to China’s gigantic market, foreign companies for years have had to put up with Beijing’s restrictions and fines that some believe are simply protectionist.

That tension has been on display again over the past few months as China has considered a slate of national security and counterterrorism laws that critics — including the White House and international business community — say unfairly target foreign companies.

The laws, similar to the pledge, could require companies to install Beijing-approved encryption and allow officials to inspect source code.

Yet despite these criticisms, Chinese officials were able to summon tech heavyweights, including Apple, Facebook, IBM, Google and Uber, to a meeting next week in Seattle. The summit is scheduled to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Washington, partly as a show of strength.

It’s unclear whether any of the attendees at the tech summit received the pledge, according to the Times.

The document reportedly includes language that dovetails with a recently enacted national security law.

“Our company agrees to strictly adhere to the two key principles of ‘not harming national security and not harming consumer rights,' " it reads.

It then lists six promises, including “guarantee product safety and trustworthiness,” “guarantee the security of user information” and “accept the supervision of all parts of society.”

The last commitment includes an agreement “to cooperate with third-party institutions for assessment and verification that products are secure and controllable.”

The language has businesses worried that such a pledge would open them up to Chinese surveillance.

There is no deadline to respond listed on the document, but The Times reported it may be discussed at next week’s Seattle tech forum or at a major upcoming Internet conference hosted by China’s Internet regulators.