Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has said it will not allow its technology to be used for targeting or identifying specific ethnic groups.
The statement follows reports that the company’s content moderation technology can pick out Uighur minorities.
Alibaba said it was “dismayed’ that Alibaba Cloud developed facial technology that includes ethnicity as an attribute for tagging video imagery.
“We have eliminated any ethnic tag in our product offering,” Alibaba said.
The firm said it never intended the technology to be used in this manner.
US-based surveillance industry researcher IPVM published a report on Wednesday that said software capable of identifying Uighurs appears in Alibaba’s Cloud Shield content moderation service for websites.
Alibaba describes Cloud Shield as a system that “detects and recognises text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements, and spam, and provides verification, marking, custom configuration and other capabilities.”
IPVM said mention of Uighurs in the software disappeared around the time it published its report.
Alibaba – which is listed in New York and Hong Kong – is the biggest cloud computing vendor in China and the fourth worldwide, according to data from researcher Canalys.
New forced labour allegations
The latest report comes amid new allegations of potential forced labour in China’s west.
The BBC uncovered evidence suggesting that more than half a million minority workers a year are being marshalled into seasonal cotton picking.
That’s in addition to a large network of detention camps, in which more than a million are thought to have been detained, and claims that minority groups are being coerced into working in textile factories.
The Chinese government has long denied forced labour claims, insisting that the camps are “vocational training schools” and the factories are part of a massive, and voluntary, “poverty alleviation” scheme.
Following the BBC investigation, a member of an influential parliamentary committee urged UK businesses to investigate their sources of cotton, to ensure they avoided purchasing material that involved forced labour.
Also, the US recently banned cotton imports from a Chinese state-owned enterprise it said has used the forced labour of detained Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) is a quasi-military organisation that reportedly accounts for nearly a fifth of Xinjiang’s GDP, and is one of China’s largest cotton producers.