AI startup Hugging Face told Semafor it was aware of the “regrettable accessibility issues in China” after the country blocked access to the platform, which hosts more than 365,000 open-source artificial intelligence models.
“The Chinese AI community is incredible and we wish their access to HF was better, but there’s not much we can do against government regulations for now,” a spokesperson for Hugging Face said in an email on Friday.
It’s not clear when Hugging Face, a $4.5 billion startup, was first censored by the People’s Republic. Chinese users have complained about having connectivity issues on the company’s forum since as early as May of this year. The newsletter ChinaTalk reported Wednesday that Hugging Face has been fully unavailable in China since at least September 12.
Chinese authorities regularly block access to websites featuring content the government considers inappropriate, but it’s not apparent what triggered the decision to censor Hugging Face. The culprit may be local regulations that went into effect in August requiring companies to register their AI services and ensure they adhere to existing content restrictions.
Originally founded in 2016, Hugging Face has become one of the largest beneficiaries of the recent boom in generative AI technology. Developers can use its platform to collaborate on machine learning projects or share datasets. It works similarly to GitHub, a Microsoft-owned site that hosts code repositories.
China has also previously blocked access to GitHub or at least some of its webpages, but the site remains periodically accessible, likely because of the important role that it plays in the country’s software engineering ecosystem. Without access to the open-source repositories it hosts, many developers would be unable to perform their job duties.
The View From China
On the Chinese question-and-answer platform Zhihu earlier this month, users discussed the potential implications of banning Hugging Face in a since-deleted thread. “I’m really very sad, this is strangling our own competitiveness — in today’s world of AI quickly increasing productivity, shutting oneself off like this is really determining that, in the AI field at least, we will inevitably be behind,” read one of the comments translated by ChinaTalk.