Who is the authority on the Internet? No we don’t mean Tim Berners-Lee or Vint Cerf or anyone like that. Who has the ability to determine punishment for the people who do not abide by the rules? For some Internet novices the mere thought of that can lead to hilarious results as evidenced by this clip from the Canadian TV show Corner Gas. In more recent times the authority has become the various platforms which have seemingly been given the authority to determine what content is allowed on the Internet. In China though there is something far more sinister, there is an actual Internet court.

Internet Court?

Ok, sinister may be the wrong word to use. China is a vast country with over 800 million Internet users. The court is designed to rule on disputes that arise from anything from Internet shopping to domains to lending to intellectual property. The first court opened in 2017 in Hangzhouto help deal with over 35,000 Internet related disputes from that year alone. That number overwhelmed the court which prompted a second court to open this year. This new court in Beijing is staffed 24 hours a day with a total of 38 judges each having at least 10 years of trial experience. A third court will open in Guangzhou sometime this month.

Filing a lawsuit is quick and easy

When one thinks of a Chinese court they probably think of rigged trials with innocent defendants being sent to gulags for years of hard labor. Stereotypically Communist right? These courts seem to be nothing of the sort with the details of the trial including the decision being made available online for anyone to see. Filings are done via the Internet and deliberations are done using live streams to help cut costs. To file a complaint the plaintiff must have their id verified either through Alipay (Alibaba’s online payment system) or in person at a courthouse. Evidence can be submitted digitally and all information is stored on Alibaba Cloud and filing can be done in as little as five minutes. Defendants are notified electronically and mediation is attempted first before proceeding to trial.

Online protections but not from the government

Chinese law dictates that suits against companies must be handled in the city that the company resides in which led to Hangzhou being the first court established. Hangzhou is the home of China’s burgeoning e-commerce sector (their Silicon Valley) with companies like Alibaba and NetEase headquartering there as well as 55 other global Fortune 500 companies. The intention is to give consumers the same protections that they would get from physical stores.

In a fitting bit or irony Alibaba’s online marketplace Taobao could have been taken to court by the government for allowing vendors to sell illegal VPNs that allowed users to bypass government censors, aka the Great Firewall of China. That means that they would host the information that is used in trial against them. Go figure that one out. The Chinese government wound up simply blocking the VPNs putting them out of business and is working with Google to censor anything that goes against it. That is sinister.

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