China's powerful internet titans are suddenly on the defensive amid concerns that the data they gather is compromising consumer privacy.
Search engine Baidu Inc. is the most-recent company to come under the spotlight, joining Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. affiliate Ant Financial and Tencent Holdings Ltd., following claims by a provincial consumer group that Baidu illegally obtained users' personal information.
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Baidu's search app and mobile browser fail to give consumers advance warning that the apps enable Baidu to monitor the user's phone and have access to messages, contacts and system settings, the Jiangsu Provincial Consumers Association alleged in a civil suit filed last week.
The association, which is supported by the provincial government in the coastal region near Shanghai, said such notice is required by law. It asked the Nanjing Intermediate People's Court to compel Baidu to comply.
Baidu denied the allegations, saying its mobile apps can't monitor phone calls and that "access to geographic location, text messages and address books are within the scope of reasonable use." It added that users must give the app authorization to operate.
"Baidu has always attached great importance to the protection of personal information," the Beijing company said.
Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent all play a significant role in helping China's authoritarian government surveil its citizens, and to a much greater degree than their tech counterparts in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reported.
Among Chinese citizens, there is increasing awareness that what they do and say online is readily accessible to authorities, said Shaun Rein, managing director at China Market Research Group.
"In the past few months, the concern over user data held by these internet companies has started to worry people," Mr. Rein said.
Liu Yanchun, a 22-year-old student from Hunan province, said she wouldn't download new Baidu apps after learning about the lawsuit. But she expressed frustration at doing anything beyond that because of her dependence on apps such as Tencent's WeChat for communication and mobile payments.
"I feel a bit helpless," Ms. Liu said. "If WeChat wants to gather my information, I don't really think I have much chance to resist it."
Last week, the normally press-shy Tencent took the rare step of publicly denying that it collects user chat history for big-data analysis, after a prominent Chinese businessman expressed concern that WeChat messages were read "every single day."
Also last week, Ant Financial apologized to users of its Alipay mobile-payment service for automatically enrolling them in its social-credit scoring service as the default method when people clicked on a 2017 user-spending annual report. Ant said in a statement that users who had been enrolled by default would be removed from it.
Still, concerns persist.
"There is no privacy at all," one user wrote on Weibo social media in response to a posting about the Baidu case. "We are basically 'naked!'"
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 08, 2018 06:58 ET (11:58 GMT)