China launches pioneering online court to deal with internet-related disputes

The internet court formally opens for business

A pioneering online court formally launched in China last week to handle internet-related cases, such as online trade and copyright disputes.

Located in and for the e-commerce hub of Hangzhou – home of Chinese technology giant Alibaba – the Hangzhou Court of the Internet is said to be the first of its kind in the world., and members of the public can visit to watch trials.

The court handles contract and product liability disputes arising from online shopping, disputes with internet service providers and over loans agreed and completed online, and copyright issues.

The entire process is handled online, with parties are required to go to mediation first – the mediator makes contact within 15 days of the action being filed. If this fails, then the case is formally submitted to the court’s case filing division.

Speaking last week, court president Du Qian said since a soft launch in May, 1,444 of 2,605 cases have settled, with cases taking an average of 32 days. Each online trial lasts an average of 25 minutes.

There are plans also to develop big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence applications to build a “smart court”.

Writing on the China Law Blog – a highly respected blog published by US law firm Harris Bricken – lawyer Sara Xia said Hangzhou has been chosen as the location because, as a general rule of Chinese law, lawsuits must be brought in the place of the defendant’s domicile.

She questioned the wisdom of having the system rely so heavily on Alibaba’s technology – to file cases and attend trials, users either have to attend the court in person or have their identity verified through Alipay (Alibaba’s payment service), and data exchanges are encrypted using security technologies provided by Alibaba Cloud.

Ms Xia wrote: “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?”

She also asked why product liability was within the court’s jurisdiction: “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’.”

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