Verbal sparring between two Chinese billionaires over data privacy has shone a rare spotlight onto a topic in China that has also dogged global social media companies from Facebook to Twitter: who owns the content generated by the users and how to handle it.

After Geely Holding chairman Li Shufu this week called out Tencent Holdings chairman and fellow billionaire Pony Ma Huateng for “looking at our WeChats every day, because he can”, the Shenzhen-based social-media giant posted a response that said it does not keep chat histories nor does the company analyse WeChat data for commercial use.

A review of relevant regulations in China, however, suggests that companies like Tencent, which launched popular messaging app WeChat in 2011, may not have a choice in the matter when it comes to retaining records. WeChat, known as Weixin on the mainland, has more than 1 billion users worldwide.

China’s Cybersecurity Law, introduced in June last year, requires network operators to store select data on servers within the country, monitor and record network operations, and maintain related logs for not fewer than six months.

As messaging platform operators, Tencent’s WeChat and Sina Corp’s Weibo are also required to warn users against breaking relevant laws, restrict the publication of posts, suspend or close down accounts while preserving related records for the authorities, according to a policy statement posted on the website of regulator the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

In its own service agreement, WeChat said it has the right to decide how long it can store individual user data on a case-by-case basis.

QQ, another popular messaging app operated by Tencent, and Sina’s Twitter-like Weibo both state in their service terms that they will not disclose personal information of their users to third parties without permission except as required under the law and regulations.

Outside China, social-media operators like Facebook have bumped up against strict privacy protection laws in regions such as Europe. Last month, its WhatsApp messaging service was given a month by France’s data protection agency to stop sharing user data with its parent Facebook without getting the necessary consent.

Internet companies collect user data to analyse for patterns that can produce, for example, more targeted recommendations in the case of music streaming or push relevant news stories that will interest readers based on their past browsing history. The advances in artificial intelligence, which uses computing power to find hidden patterns in consumer behaviour, has given fresh impetus in the privacy debate.

Calls to a Geely representative were not answered.