Court ruling boosts online privacy in China

It feels like almost every week that we are writing negative stories about online surveillance and censorship behind the Great Firewall in Communist China. So, it is a relief to finally be able to report on something positive.

One of the many issues Chinese netizens face is a lack of privacy online. This is something which includes state surveillance of online activity but is not restricted to just that. It also extends to the activity of private companies with many trading openly in the personal data of Chinese citizens.

Private Data Trading

But that now all looks set to change after a landmark court ruling. As Caixin has reported, an Intellectual Property Court in Beijing has upheld the ruling made by a lower court in a case brought by Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) against Maimai.

Maimai is a former partner of Weibo and runs its own chat app. Weibo had claimed that Maimai had improperly collected personal data from Weibo which it had then sold on to third parties.

Such activity is not uncommon in China where prior to this case a lack of legislation to protect personal data had created an environment where businesses will frequently buy and sell personal information of their customers and were under no requirement to inform or seek consent from individuals affected. This data frequently ends up being used for unwanted telesales and even fraudulent activity.

But with this latest court ruling, which has arrived some two years after Weibo originally brought the case could see this environment start to change.

Court Ruling

Caixin reports intelligence from an unidentified source within Maimai (corporate transparency is sorely lacking in China too) who said that the ruling had levied a fine of 2 million yuan (around $300,000) on Maimai.

They had also been instructed to post details of the ruling on their websites and apps for a period of at least 48 hours. The impact that such a penalty is likely to have on an organisation as big as Maimai is minimal, but much more important than that is the precedent that this ruling sets.

Because along with the penalties against Maimai, the court also published guidance which can be used in similar cases involving the unscrupulous use of personal data.

Guidance for future cases

The guidance in question was published yesterday on a microblog on the court website. It gave six instances of what it said would constitute “improper” data usage. This included such things as “harming a user’s welfare and disturbing order on the internet.

In typical Chinese style these examples are loosely phrased which allows widespread interpretation about what circumstances they might cover. But for once, it looks like this vagueness might work in favour of the individual user rather than the state or corporate body.

The broad conclusion from the case was that third parties who gather publicly available data are required to take steps to protect individual privacy and it also went on to specify that they should make “a concerted effort to get authorization from both platform operators and actual users.”

It is important not to overemphasise the impact that these changes will have on individual online privacy in China. It is still home to the most intrusive surveillance and censorship programmes in the world and far from rolling this back, the regime of Xi Jinping has been clamping down on any form of online dissent in recent times.

But it does offer a glimmer of hope in the battle against unscrupulous private enterprises and fraudsters who, for those Chinese citizens who accept the online oppression imposed on them by the state, are the biggest nuisance online.

And maybe one day, this precedent will be built upon and Chinese citizens will be able to enjoy an open and free internet without having to use a VPN.

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