By Hou Weili
Internet courts again made headlines across China after a ruling on a highprofile case against Chinese internet giant Netease for copyright infringement in August 2017.
The embroiled subsidiary of Baidu circulated a short video on one of its platforms created under contract of Tiktok without consent, causing Tiktok and the video maker to sue Baidu for copyright infringement.
The case was the first ever tried in Beijing Court of the Internet after it was established last September. The ruling was decided the day after Christmas. The plaintiff, defendant and their respective lawyers were not present in court but sitting at computers and communicating with the judge through video. Internet technology now makes it possible for people from different locations to conduct a real-time trial.
“Breaking past geographical restrictions, online legal hearings and trials save litigants time and travel costs while enabling courts to provide better and faster judicial services on internetrelated cases,” opined Du Qian,president of the Hangzhou Court of the Internet, the first of its kind in China and the world. After it was organized on a trial basis on August 18, 2017, Beijing and Guangzhou followed suit and launched internet courts on September 9 and 28, 2018 respectively.
Conducting all procedures online, an internet court specializes in internetrelated cases arising from online purchases or contract disputes and online loans as well as lawsuits involving intellectual rights.
Through the court’s website, plaintiffs can file suit, submit relevant evidence and pay litigation charges. The system automatically delivers summons to defendants. A case can be filed in just five minutes. “Thanks to the online system, the court can hear a case and deliver a judgment in as little as 25 minutes,” remarked Du.
As of the end of 2018, these three internet courts had heard some 18,000 cases, which were decided in an average of 28 minutes, saving massive amounts of time.
Internet courts are an innovative development of China’s judicial system introduced to embrace the rapid penetration of the digital technology into daily lives.
“In the internet era, litigants may be based in different cities under different judicial authorities,” explained Yu Zhigang, a law professor with China University of Political Science and Law. Therefore, all such suits have to first argue over jurisdiction, which consumes considerable time, energy and money. Furthermore, judges might find difficulties deciding a case according to traditional lawsuit regulations.
Yu illustrated that a court established for internetrelated cases would enable judges to focus on how to improve trials and hearings instead of navigating tedious red tape.
“Defendants also save considerable expenses on travel to respond to summons from courts in different cities, which may cost as much as several billion yuan in total,” added Yu.
For example, online consumers in Beijing wouldn’t make the trip all the way to Hangzhou to sue Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace. It was also extremely inconvenient for the Hangzhou-based company to send lawyers to court in Beijing.
Online court also enables judges to make more informed decisions with the help of big data and blockchain technologies. “With the online system, they can quickly refer to similar cases and check financial information, transactions or credit records of the involved parties when necessary,” explained Du.
The location of the first internet court was carefully chosen. Hangzhou is home to e-commerce giant Alibaba Group that operates a widelyused mobile payment system and the largest online marketplace. As e-commerce has flourished, it has also brought a surging volume of online disputes. Local courts were spearheading exploration of online courts as early as 2015, which has resulted in rich accumulation of experience.
As an entirely fresh endeavor, internet courts lack any precedent and therefore face challenges in institutional design and real operation.
“The design should break from traditional institutions and solve real problems arising from the internet in an original way,” declared Zhou Hanhua, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). “It is not just adding the internet to traditional court, but re-designing procedures to handle lawsuits across different jurisdictions from filing to hearing.”
Authentication of evidence collected from online platforms is more difficult. “An online transaction involves the seller, the buyer and the platform,” illustrated Yang Ming, deputy director of the Internet Law Center at Peking University. “But any data that can be used as evidence is generated and controlled by the platform—even a professional accreditation agency will have a difficult time authenticating it.”
He suggested that mechanisms to ensure the impartiality of the thirdparty platform should be designed. “The data ports of the court, online platform and accreditation agency can be connected,” Yang added.
A recent report released by China Internet Network Information Center showed that China had 802 million internet users by the end of last June. Of China’s 1.38 billion population, about one third still lacks access to the internet. “This new court is for ordinary people,” insisted Zhou. “We must ensure we can serve those who are still unfamiliar with the internet.”
Li Lin, director of the Law Institute under CASS, sees the emergence of internet courts as evidence of the direction of China’s judicial reform. “China is revolutionizing traditional judicial philosophy from methods of hearing through trial,” he said. “New technologies like big data, cloud computing, blockchain and artificial intelligence can be applied in the judicial system to optimize and regulate proceedings.”