Tencent promises its technology will ‘do good’

Tencent, one of Asia’s most valuable companies with a current market cap of around $460 billion, has introduced a new motto after co-founder and CEO Pony Ma said this week he wanted ‘tech for good’ to be part of the company’s vision and mission in the future.

The company has not yet officialized the new corporate philosophy and it’s unclear how the “don’t be evil”-like slogan will manifest in Tencent’s business strategy. Nor do we know if it will replace the old mission, which is still emblazoned on its website:

Tencent’s mission is to “improve the quality of life through internet value-added services”. Guided by its “user oriented” business philosophy, Tencent achieves its mission via the delivery of integrated internet solutions to over 1 billion netizens.

Episodes of recent events can probably provide some hints to what the new slogan might entail. The old mission, which focuses on the individual user rather than the wider society, has led Tencent to supremacy in video games and social media; the company is the operator behind the billion-user messager WeChat and several top-grossing video games. But these segments of businesses are under growing pressure as China’s changing regulatory environment and industry rivals create challenges for the 21-year-old behemoth.

A months-long gaming freeze last year put a squeeze on Tencent’s gaming revenues, wiping billions of dollars from its market cap. Rising short-video app Douyin, which is TikTok’s local version, threatens Tencent’s dominance in the social and content realms.

To stay competitive, the company underwent a sweeping re-organization last October to place more focus on enterprise businesses, such as cloud computing and other digital infrastructure for industries ranging from finance, healthcare, education to government services.

The new focus to upgrade entrenched industries not only opens up more revenue streams; these sectors also provide the testing ground for Tencent to put its ‘tech for good’ mission into practice.

As Ma pledged at the government-run industry conference Digital China Summit on Monday, Tencent believes “technology can bring benefits to the human race; humans should make good use of technology and refrain from its evil use; and technology should strive to solve the problems it brings to society.”

Ma pointed to three key areas where technology can generate positive changes: traditional industries, where Tencent could provide big data capabilities to beef up efficiency in production; government units, where Tencent could leverage its apps to digitize a slew of civil services such as applying for visas and renewing drivers’ licenses; and society, which is a broad and arguably vague definition but has seen efforts like tracing missing children using Tencent’s face recognition solutions.

“Looking at parallels across the globe, Google proposed ‘do no evil’ as its code of conduct ahead of its initial public offering 20 years ago. I think this kind of elevated mission is evidence of the amount of influence a company has accumulated,” Zhong Xin, a former Qualcomm engineer who founded the artificial intelligence-powered medical imaging startup 12 Sigma, said to TechCrunch.

“Technology is a double-edged sword. A company needs a guiding principle to determine its proper use, so I believe the purported mission to do good with technology is inevitable,” added Xin.

From the government’s standpoint, a corporate motto that focuses on doing good is clearly music to the ears. Tencent’s new code of conduct comes as China’s tech darlings face mounting public and government criticisms for their adverse impact on society, a movement mirroring Silicon Valley’s tech backlash. The charges range from video games’ role in causing bad eyesight among children, which put Tencent in the crosshairs; to clickbait content running rampant on Bytedance’s popular news app, Toutiao.

“‘Doing good’ should be an inherent value to all technology companies, including venture investors,” Wang Jing, partner at venture capital firm Sky9 Capital, suggested to TechCrunch. “When companies have to single out ‘doing good’ on a special occasion, it may be that something has already gone wrong.”

Many tech heavyweights in question have responded to backlashes by imposing stricter policies over their products. Tencent, for example, launched an underage-protection mode for all its gaming titles that would allow parents to monitor children’s play time. Toutiao, too, has hired thousands of auditors to root out content deemed inappropriate by the authority.

This is not the first time Tencent has weighed in on its own ethics. The phrase ‘tech for good’ was first unveiled by Tencent co-founder and former CTO Tony Zhang in early 2018, but it has probably garnered more attention among the executives after an essay titled “Tencent has no dream” sparked heated debate in the Chinese tech circle. Penned by a veteran journalist, the article argued that Tencent was fixated on seeking investment-worthy products rather than inventing its own.

“People argued that Tencent has no dream. By bringing up the slogan ‘tech for good’, Tencent seems to be proclaiming to the public that it does have a dream,” Derek Shen, who is chairman at shared housing startup Danke and formerly headed LinkedIn China, told TechCrunch. “And its dream is big, which is to do good things to people’s lives.”

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