CHINA VOICES | Tencent for social good

4 min read
Tencent CEO Pony Ma (Image credit: TechNode/Jiayi Shi)

A version of this first article appeared in our members-only newsletter on June 29, 2019. Become a member and read it first.

In 2019, after the government took a huge bite out of Tencent’s earnings by freezing video game monetization approvals, CEO Pony Ma caught the CSR bug and changed the firm’s mission statement to “technology for social good.” Here I translate the second half of an article that delightfully wanders from online dispute resolution to AI chess and the EU’s GDPR, all the while meditating on the responsibility that tech giants have to society more broadly. The article was published anonymously. What follows is the author’s words, translated, with some cuts for length.

Tencent wants to do good

“Angel non-investor,” Huxiu, June 25, 2019

Disputes in the digital age are like pollution in the industrial age: Industrial development itself brings enormous benefits, so the “small problems” of pollution are only taken seriously after years of accumulation.

On the one hand, unlike the limited range of industrial pollution, the internet and technology are “everywhere.” The boundaries between online and offline are becoming increasingly blurred.

On the other hand, because information technology is developing rapidly, in the eyes of the government it is almost too fast. The fields of science and technology, regardless of production materials (especially users and data) or knowledge, are dominated by large companies, and the government has very little accumulation in this area. But its intervention often leads to a disaster both for companies and users.

Back to Tencent itself: Its games business has suffered a setback. What is the background?

The government has been obsessed with anti-addiction policies for so many years. But why do some prefer to put the games before the children or vice versa?

It’s the netizens—not the social networks—who spread rumors, threats, and filthy speech. It’s the merchants— not the e-commerce platform—who sell fake stuff. These things are clear offline, but once it’s online, the dynamic changes. What’s great about internet companies is also what makes them terrible. With low-margin, scalable internet models, errors and leaks can spread and grow just as easily. Once an isolated error enters the digital domain, it is no longer isolated; in addition to harming the individual, it will interfere with broader research, analysis, and decision-making, thus affecting the country and society overall.

This does not mean that technology companies are hapless. In fact, they have gained too much from this era: financially, culturally and politically. Otherwise, Facebook and Twitter would not get mixed up in political issues. Don’t forget that two consecutive US presidential elections were mixed up in social media-related issues.

Responsibilities

With great power comes great responsibility. There’s an old legal principle: “For every right, there is a remedy; when there is no remedy, there is no right.” Look at it from the perspective of John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice” —if technology companies are the “natural aristocracy” of the digital age, they will find it necessary to make sacrifices for social well-being.

Tencent is not the only prophet. Other “monopolists” have struggled. Steam has been criticized for poor conflict resolution, unable to resolve disputes between developers and players. Online games get ruined by hackers, so users can now report on each other—often without cause. Contributors fight on Wikipedia, with disputes resolved by complicated editorial mechanisms.

Thus: “Code is the law, code is the process.”

Can technology companies make amends?

Can Tencent answer all of the government’s questions? No one can say for sure, but I can tell you a story about their anti-game addiction.

Tencent doesn’t just make colorful games aimed at young people. It should be noted that there are many traditional chess games in the QQ game channel. In the AlphaGO AI era, many QQ player IDs were registered for chess AIs so they could sneak into the chess platform for “self-learning.”

Over time, some chess players realized that if they had a few wins and got onto a hot streak, they would quickly encounter an unreasonably powerful opponent. Within a few seconds, they would be out of the game. No matter how many times the opponent is challenged, the player would get demolished, lose interest, and eventually stop playing.

The group started speculating: Was that unbeatable opponent an AI? Since all the players were having the same experience, some joked that such a chess AI could serve as Tencent’s anti-addiction strategy.

Tencent certainly denied using such an immature and controversial technology in this way. But it is undeniable that AI accomplished what the government, society, and parents had been unable to do, namely, to persuade addicted players that they no longer wanted to play.

So we have to answer another question: Why should you focus on establishing ODR (online dispute resolution) protocols? Because of growth.

To put it bluntly, the biggest reason for the slow growth is that the demographic dividend has subsided and the cost of user acquisition has skyrocketed. Nowadays, whoever can rely on their existing users will at least not be in “negative growth.” Whoever repeatedly disappoints their users will only give other companies their “growth.”

Only another Tencent can beat Tencent. Only another Google can beat Google. We look forward to a Google that respects the “right to be forgotten,” a Facebook that respects privacy, and effective anti-addiction measures in videogames. If there is a Tencent better than today’s Tencent, even if there aren’t any new users to fight over, this “New Tencent” could naturally come out on top.

Across the barbaric growth of Internet companies, users have paved the way for the highways of the mobile internet era. But if we look back at these conditions of excellent infrastructure, we will find that there are countless actors, all coming together to create some serious congestion in the industry.

Establishing the right traffic rules for today’s digital realm, rather than rushing to expand the miles of new roads, is the most important thing for the big players.