China’s Internet Courts are Spreading

Following on the heels of China’s first internet court in Hangzhou, two more internet courts have recently been established  in Beijing and Guangzhou. In the meantime, China’s Supreme People’s Court published the Provisions on Several Issues Concerning the Trial of Cases by the Internet Courts, 最高人民法院关于互联网法院审理案件若干问题的规定 (link in Chinese) (“Provisions”), clarifying the types of cases within the jurisdiction of these courts and regulating certain procedural issues relevant to Internet courts.

According to the Provisions, the internet courts are designated to handle disputes involving the online sale of goods and services, lending, copyright and neighboring rights ownership and infringement, domains, infringement on personal rights or property rights via the internet, product liability claims, and internet public interest litigation brought by prosecutors.

Currently, all three internet courts are trial courts within the jurisdiction of their own cities. Most appeals will be heard by the intermediate courts in their respective jurisdictions. However, online copyright-ownership and infringement disputes and domain-name disputes tried by Guangzhou and Beijing internet courts will be appealed to the Intellectual Property Courts in their respective cities.

As a general rule, the entire litigation process in the internet courts will be conducted online, including the service of legal documents, the presentation of evidence, and the actual trial itself. Notably, in these Provisions, the Supreme People’s Court confirms that the internet courts may consider electronic evidence provided by the parties that can be authenticated by electronic signatures, time stamps, hash value verification, blockchain and other tamper-proof verification methods. In fact, before these Provisions were announced, the internet Court in Hangzhou for the first time in China admitted evidence that was authenticated by blockchain technology in an online copyright infringement case. In this case, the plaintiff sued the defendant for copyright infringement because the defendant published the Hangzhou company’s copyrighted material without a proper license to do so. The plaintiff captured defendant’s webpages, their source code and call logs, and uploaded the data to a blockchain platform. The Court held that the data confirmed each other and accurately reflected their source, generation and path of delivery, and were therefore reliable and could be admitted as evidence.

As far as I know, China is leading the world in internet litigation, which in some respects should be no surprise as so much in China is done online and its regular courts so much favor documentary evidence over live testimony. The fact that China has expanded its internet courts from one city to three (and Beijing is not exactly an unimportant city) means it views its initial foray into internet dispute resolution as having been a success. It will be interesting to see how fast these internet courts spread within China and to the rest of the world.

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