Waging an “internet war” in China

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Abuse of public forums designed to defame plaintiffs slowly being reined in

Feb. 17 – In an ongoing trend in China, large numbers of legal disputes, which should be the preserve of the courts, are being aired via public forums. At China Briefing for example, we are involved with several litigation suits over the inappropriate use of deliberately similar domains and brands, all of which have had to end up in the hands of our lawyers for action after attempts to reconcile the issues failed. In two of these of these cases, threats have been made against our businesses, with one instance assuring of an “internet war” to be waged if legal action was instigated against the defendant. Regrettably, this has lead to libelous comments relating to individuals and businesses connected to China Briefing appearing on various sites and forums concerned with China. The situation doesn’t just affect China Briefing however; it has been for some time a serious matter of national concern. Steps however, are being taken to rein in such abuse.

There are a number of issues here: firstly, tracking offensive material, identifying perpetrators and taking action; secondly, appropriate website management, and thirdly, issuing writs for libel in Chinese courts.

In our specific cases, as disputes have arisen concerning domain registrations and copyright issues, inevitably these have been placed in the hands of our lawyers to take action; WIPO, in the case of domain registrations, and the People’s Court in China. This should be end of the matter, however, with abuse targeting the business as revenge or mischief making appearing on public forums the procedure becomes more tedious, time-consuming, and of course costly. So what can be done if you find yourself the target of such abuse?

Website management is an issue, with poorly moderated sites perhaps unwilling or unable to moderate their public forums effectively. They may also leave the material up for a while to maximize any benefits of hosting it, to take it down later and be seen to be compliant. Largely however, when approached with the serious nature of a legal complaint, most sites will remove content. To take the matter further, the individual responsible for posting the material needs to be traced, and this can be done by tracking IP numbers. Offensive material will usually appear on sites under assumed names, however in one case of continuing abuse we are tracking, several different user names have been identified, yet all from the same IP address. The Network Security Police can be asked to take action, the physical address of the abuser identified, with the Police then able to take direct action against them.

So large has the problem become that China has established the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Centre, a website created by the Internet Information Services Commission of the Internet Society of China. The website provides a channel for the public to report illegal Internet activity and material. The organization upholds the rights and privacy of people who report suspected illegal or offensive material, while operators of offending websites are warned to dispose of the material under the supervision of the INISWC. With that channel now in place, information service providers and their staff can now enhance their observation of laws and regulations as well as social ethics to create a sound and healthy online environment, according to the INISWC.

The system, which has been in place for the past three years, has been working with increased success. Just last month, an astonishing 44,000 websites were either barred from access within China or were closed down. Individuals that have waged campaigns of hate against others have, in some cases, been jailed, such as the notorious incident of a 13-year-old girl being targeted on public forums and ridiculed with sexually offensive material. The abuser, an 18-year-old man, was recently handed a eight year jail sentence.

However, such cases still do highlight deficiencies in China’s libel laws. Courts can be reluctant to accept such cases, and awards are usually minimal. Additionally, by the time the case gets to court, the damage may have been done. In cases involving foreigners however, when caught the police will study the immigration status of the person concerned and review the nature of their visa. Often, such individuals are usually out of compliance with the terms of their employment or study, and are deported. In cases involving underpayment of tax, then fines accordingly for this additional offense are levied as well.

In cases involving websites, their servers can be identified and barred from access within China, or if hosted in the PRC, can be taken offline. Most servers will not wish to host sites containing material offensive to the PRC as they view it as a huge market, and will drop abusive sites from their rosters.

Concerning website management, well managed sites will be effectively moderated and will not allow such material online. It’s also a curious nature of the web that scurrilous material seems to also generate the largest numbers of hits! People love gossip. Thankfully, the nature of the sites that entertain such material are usually low-end, and attract a readership largely not of the standard that can inflict serious commercial harm.

If you find yourself the victim of such abuse we recommend the following steps:

1) Take copies of the material posted. It may be deleted later, so you need to cut and paste the offending material if required for future evidence.
2) Contact the website moderator, request the material be removed and ask for the IP address of the offending user.
3) Contact the CIIRC at www.net.china.cn if material continues to be displayed.
4) Contact the domain server and provide details of the offending material so they may review it and take remedial action against the site directly.
5) Engage an investigations company – the recent case in Hong Kong involving the posting of offensive material of local pop stars ended in the perpetrator being jailed after an investigations firm was hired by the singers’ management.
6) Get legal advice – we recommend Rouse & Co as a specialist firm in this field – www.iprights.com should abuse continue in order to liaise with the police and if necessary through the public courts in China for libel.
7) If foreigners are involved, it may be worth considering claims for libel may also under some circumstances be filed overseas, such as the United States – if the abuser is from that country, or the server is based there. Claims for damages can be significant in Western countries.

Fortunately most people online recognize the nature of inappropriate material appearing – personal attacks on named individuals being made under assumed names is always a giveaway – and are sensible about it. Well managed sites, forums and blogs will not permit such material to appear in the first instance. Nonetheless, when campaigns are waged to discredit individuals or businesses, steps can be taken to prevent it and to punish the perpetrators if necessary.

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