China's three big Internet-driven companies, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, are set to influence a vast section of the country's business because they control data concerning the consumer and social behavior of millions of people. The awesome power comes from the government's drive to develop a "big data" industry, which is thriving in China.
Several other players, including utilities like phone companies and retail chains, are also trying to dip into the newly discovered pot of money from buyers who need information to understand buying preferences of potential customers, and design their products and strategies in line with the data flows.
"It [big data] is an improvement to do [a] better job, but unfortunately your [consumer's] lifeline is more and more dependent on these big three guys,” said Chiang Jeongwen, a professor of marketing at the China Europe International Business School.
Recent studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of China’s 731 million online users have made at least one online purchase, often involving the use of Baidu's search facilities, e-commerce sites and third-party transactions using mobile phone apps.
"People are buying things and using their third party payment systems. [That] information [is] also being captured by Tencent and Alibaba. That is huge because now they know both offline and online information of consumers,” said Chiang.
These companies own a wide range of businesses that makes it possible for them to gather both online and offline data that is generated when a customer uses a phone app to make payments at a physical shop.
Alibaba owns Alipay while Tencent runs the highly popular WeChat service which offers mobile payment options. Baidu is China's biggest internet search engine and holds the kind of influence that Google does in other countries.
"They have diversified the services [that] they offer. Alibaba, they are big in e-commerce. The kind of data they generate comes from anything ranging from what you buy online to your bill payments, travel bookings you do with, for example, the Alipay app," said Shazeda Ahmed, visiting academic in the technology and economics division of Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies.
"People use the same platforms to make purchases, so there is a sense of extreme power in this situation because you can do all of these on one platform," she explained.
These companies have a very strong predictive power that comes from a vast store of historical data and real-time data that they are collecting from users of different services. "They kind of able to anticipate the next thing a user might want before the user himself is aware of it," she said.
Trading in data
The expansion of big data has given rise to serious concerns about the privacy of millions of people, who reveal both their transaction information and facets of social behavior through social media.
China has seen the rise of a black market for data. Data sellers offer a wide range of data on a targeted person, business or community by cracking into official databases and privately run sites.
But Chinese officials insist the government has put in place strong safeguards.
"There is a very strong firewall built before the big data center was established," Zhang Bin, a senior official of the main big data center established by the Chinese government in Guiyang city. "We also made strict policy to control the data leaks from the government, so these are the two ways to protect information not to be leaked to the private companies for illegal use.”
The government has established a big data exchange center in Guiyang to encourage private and state-run companies to trade in data in a transparent manner, and help the industry find out the real price of the information. The center has come in for some praise by foreign companies who visited it but some questions remain unanswered.
"Having a legitimate place to trade data is an idea, but how does an exchange ensure that the data controllers has to requisite rights to sell data and it's not breach of privacy?" Gagan Sabharwal, director of the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, said after a recent visit.