After years of lack of interest about data privacy in China—some of it due to low awareness and some of it due to low chances of making a difference—the issue has come under the public eye. Caused in part by the implementation of China’s new cybersecurity, privacy scandals from China’s tech giants —active in almost every part of life in China—have ignited a much bigger reaction.

In the West, many already view computers and smartphones with suspicion. It was in 2011 that Europe received its first search engine that enables privacy—Qwant—several years after DuckDuckGo made its appearance in the US. The company recently came to China as a part of the delegation of about 50 businessmen brought by French president Emmanuel Macron during his first state visit.

Eric Léandri, Qwant’s co-founder and president, thinks that China has an interesting way of ensuring privacy. Among other things, its cybersecurity law requires that data from Chinese citizens remain in China.

“Everybody says that in China there is no privacy but it depends on how you look at it,” Léandri told TechNode. “What they have done now is protecting the data of their people inside of China so that means it’s very difficult to get any kind of data from Chinese out of China.”

The search engine is planning to ride the wave of China’s big smart city push which relies on sensor technology, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT). For that, they will need data, data, and more data. Coming from someone that claims not to gather user data, it’s an interesting proposition.

“Yes, we need a lot of data but we don’t need to know that it’s you or me,” Léandri told TechNode. The whole idea of Qwant is to make AI and IoT without the data of the users.”

Qwant sees the new cybersecurity rule as working in favor of their own business. Companies that want to work with data from China will have to adapt their technology to comply with the regulations. Qwant is already operating under EU laws which require data anonymization making sure that the data subject is no longer identifiable. Neither China’s nor US’s legal framework does not offer that level of user protection. With the age of IoT this will become a greater concern: not many are aware that this amount of interconnection brings higher risks to personal data.

“In our case, based on the fact that we are a privacy-based search engine, we don’t need people’s data,” said Léandri. “So maybe we‘ll have some technology that we can use more easily in China than some of our competitors.”

Eric Léandri, president and co-founder of Qwant. (Image credit: TechNode)

Their next project is opening up an artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) research and development center in Suzhou which hosts several institutions focused on big data. Qwant has already partnered up with one of Italy’s biggest utility companies A2A (in Italian) allowing citizens of Milan to simply search all the data collected by A2A sensors. Free parking spaces, real-time traffic, public transportation, air quality—all of this will be searchable through Qwant’s engine.

Qwant is also hoping to spread its search engine user base in China. Despite European lawmakers’ tough stance towards US tech giants and relatively high awareness of data privacy among Europeans, Qwant search engine has had a hard time drawing away users from Europe’s favorite search engine Google. Up until recently, user numbers were comparatively low which is why perhaps unfiltered results are still available in China through Qwant (!). Once the Chinese version is set up it will follow local regulations, Léandri said.

However, Qwant is not looking to draw Chinese users from the clutches of Baidu Search. After years of fighting Google, they know it would be a difficult task. Instead, the company is hoping to lure the foreign crowd in China that can’t be bothered with circumventing the Great Firewall to access Google’s search engine.

“If we can deliver a good search experience in China, better than Yahoo and Bing,—and I think we can do that easily—then it’s already something,” Léandri said.

Masha Borak is a technology reporter based in Beijing. Write to her at masha.borak [at] Pitches with the word "disruptive" will be ignored. Read a good book - learn some more adjectives.

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