China Probes Operator of Nation’s Biggest Academic Database

The second investigation of China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) comes as Beijing heightens scrutiny of firms with data troves.

The website of China National Knowledge Infrastructure shown on April 26, 2022. CNKI is giving individuals access to its plagiarism-checking service after coming under antitrust scrutiny. The service was previously only available to institutional clients. Photo: Future Publishing via Getty Images

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China cybersecurity investigators launched a probe of the operator of the country’s biggest academic database, they said Friday, as Beijing heightens scrutiny of technology companies with big troves of dataThe database operator, Tongfang Knowledge Network (Beijing) Technology Co., manages a cache of personal information and data for key industries that include defense, telecommunications, transportation and natural resources, the Cyberspace Administration of China, which oversees internet regulation, said Friday.
The database, known as China National Knowledge Infrastructure, also contains sensitive information about the country’s major research projects and its scientific and technological development, said the internet watchdog, which leads such investigations.

The probe is aimed at pre-empting risks related to the security of national data and protecting national security, the regulator said.
The move comes as Beijing re-examines data security and seeks to tighten controls over information that it deems to be critical or sensitive to national security and its technological competitiveness, blocking its export from the country. It is also against a broader backdrop of China reducing the flow of information about what is happening inside the country.

New data laws made it harder for investors to get information, including about financial statements. Providers of ship locations in Chinese waters ceased sharing information outside the country, making it hard to understand port activity there. Chinese authorities have restricted information on coal use, purged documents related to political dissent cases from an official judicial database, and stopped academic exchanges with other countries.
On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping urged the country’s top officials to reinforce regulations on the security of data and to hold companies accountable for its management.

In July last year, Beijing launched an investigation into Didi Global Inc. two days after its stock began trading in the U.S., alleging the company had illegally collected user data on its apps—later removing them from mobile app stores in China. That kicked off a broader campaign to review data controlled by Chinese tech companies, leading to greater regulation on data storage and export.

The investigators are wrapping up the probe and plan to allow Didi to bring back its apps soon, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
In December, China began requiring operators of online platforms with more than one million users to undergo a cybersecurity review before listing their shares abroad.
Beijing has also required foreign companies including Tesla Inc. to store locally generated data in China. Earlier this week, authorities in the northern city of Beidaihe, where the country’s top leadership gathers for a secretive conclave, banned Tesla cars from entering the city for two months due to concerns over data collected by the vehicles’ cameras, according to local police and people familiar with the matter. The ban was earlier reported by Reuters.

Before Friday’s cybersecurity probe, the CNKI database had long been the target of complaints about abuse of its virtual monopoly over access to published academic papers. Last month, the country’s markets regulator opened an investigation into suspected antitrust violations by the database’s operator.
The two investigations by Chinese authorities in the span of about one month have made the database and its operator particularly high-profile targets even as Beijing has otherwise signaled its intent to wind down a yearlong regulatory clampdown on the internet sector.
The antitrust probe came after several universities dropped the database’s services due to what they said were excessive charges and lawsuits by a highly regarded scholar over intellectual property violations.
Following the antitrust probe, the company said it would cooperate with the investigation and promised to examine its business practices.
In April, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s top research institution, said it would stop using CNKI because of its hefty subscription fees.
Late last year, CNKI drew criticism in local media and among scholars after a local newspaper reported that it removed all the papers of a professor after he won multiple court cases against the database for collecting his research without consent.
Launched in 1999, the database has amassed more than 280 million academic articles and over 9,300 journals, collecting service fees from more than 200 million users, it said.
Tongfang Knowledge Network Technology, the entity that runs CNKI, is wholly owned by Shanghai-listed Tsinghua Tongfang Co. , a state-owned software company linked to China’s elite Tsinghua University. CNKI is the most profitable subsidiary of Tsinghua Tongfang. In 2021, CNKI reaped $29 million in profit attributable to its parent from revenue of $192.5 million, company filings show.