China cyber law
Screenshot of Hangzhou Cyber-court Website, showing its Chinese name as Hangzhou Railway Transport Court as of end of June.

China has adopted a plan to establish a cyberspace court in Hangzhou lately. The plan is for this court to accept filings electronically, try cases via livestream and hear only e-commerce and Internet related cases.

Why Hangzhou? As a general rule of Chinese civil procedure law, lawsuits must be brought in the place of the defendant’s domicile. For companies, domicile means their principal place of business or the place where it has its registered address. Hangzhou is home to Alibaba and to many other technology companies, it has been dubbed the “capital of Chinese e-commerce,” and it is the site of the China Cross-Border E-Commerce Comprehensive Test Zone (中国(杭州)跨境电子商务综合试验区). Hangzhou courts have experienced a considerable increase in the number of e-commerce related cases, from 600 cases accepted in 2013 to more than 10,000 in 2016.

Before these most recent plans for a cyber-court in Hangzhou, the Zhejiang High Court launched a pilot program to create Zhejiang E-Commerce Online Court System to better handle Hangzhou’s increasing caseload in Hangzhou. Three Hangzhou trial courts and the Intermediate Court of Hangzhou initially joined this system to try certain e-commerce related cases online. Other than a different space (cyberspace versus an actual courtroom) for the actual litigation/trials, there are no significant differences between the online court and traditional courts. The Zhejiang E-Commerce Court website explicitly states that its litigation processes will strictly follow China civil procedure law.

What Cases Will the Cyber-Court Handle? The Cyber-court will have general jurisdiction over certain Internet and e-commerce related cases in the Hangzhou area. Although the Cyber-court’s website is currently inaccessible, according to the Zhejiang E-Commerce Court website, the following cases (over which the existing trial courts in Hangzhou would normally have original jurisdiction) will be tried by the Cyber-court beginning on August 18, 2017:

  • Disputes regarding online purchases of goods, online service agreements, and small [online?] loan agreements;
  • Disputes regarding “internet copyright” ownership and infringement;
  • Infringement on personal rights (e.g. defamation) using the Internet;
  • Product liability claims for goods purchased online;
  • Domain name disputes;
  • Disputes arising from Internet based administration;
  • Other civil and administrative cases concerning the Internet assigned to the Cyber-court by a higher court.

No matter in which district of Hangzhou a defendant is domiciled, cases that come within the above list should be filed with the Cyber-court instead of with the trial court in the previously relevant district.

How to file a case with the Cyber-court and Attend trials? Please note that because the Cyber-court’s website is currently offline and inaccessible we have had to base the information in this section on what we obtained from the website back when it was live in July and from news reports. The Cyber-court will use an online platform that allows people to file cases and attend trials. To be able to use this platform, users must first verify their identity and then register for an account. There are two options for doing this. One is to physically go to Hangzhou and show your ID to the court clerk, which to a large extent defeats much of the purpose of having the online court system. The other is to have your identity verified through Alipay (Alibaba’s payment service). If you already have an Alipay account and Alipay has verified your identity (because you probably used Taobao before), such a verification will be accepted by the cyber-court’s system.

Once you have a cyber-court account, you can file a complaint, submit evidence, and request service of process through this platform.

You can attend your trial remotely by entering a verification code on a webpage. Transmission of audio or video of any hearings and trials and the evidence presented and other data exchanges will be encrypted using security technologies provided by Alibaba Cloud.

Implications. For people who do not live in Hangzhou area and want to sue someone there based on causes that are within the Cyber-court’s jurisdiction, the new system sure will make that more convenient. It also will likely make rulings on internet and internet related cases more consistent and thereby give more and better guidance to potential and actual litigants

But I also wonder whether all of what has been put under the cyber-court’s jurisdiction makes sense. Take product liability as an example. How is a product liability claim for goods purchased online any different than that for goods purchased physically in a store? In what will the cyber-court be better able to handle such a claim? There may be difference in online and offline purchase agreements for issues such as where the defendant resides, the place of execution or performance of the agreement or jurisdiction. But those are typically answered by existing product liability law, contract law, and civil procedure law and there is no single “Product Liability Law for Cyberspace.” Do we need a separate cyberspace law or is it just the Law of the Horse? Many countries, including China, have separate maritime and IP courts and those have generally worked well. Does it make sense to have a separate court handle internet disputes? I hate to sound trite, but time will tell. Is this a genuine attempt to reform e-commerce and embrace technology? Will this one cyber-court eventually assume nationwide jurisdiction of internet claims (not likely)? Will other regions in China create their own cyber-courts? What have other countries done on this front? Please comment below if you know!

Does it make sense to have the system rely so heavily on one company’s technology (Alibaba’s)? Did it have any real choice? How secure is Alibaba’s technology as to data and privacy protection? What protections are in place to prevent Alibaba from appropriating and using the litigation data?

Finally, as with most new developments involving cyberspace and e-commerce in China much about the cyber-Court remains  unclear and will likely change, and fast. I will be covering the changes so please stay tuned.