China / Hot Issues

Court allows usernames to be sued

By Cao Yin (China Daily) Updated: 2012-05-15 07:17

If someone's legal rights are infringed upon on the Internet and the violator's real name is unknown, can the plaintiff still take a lawsuit from cyberspace to the courts?

In the past, it would have been unthinkable because defendants' true identities are required in a trial according to Chinese law or else courts will not accept the cases.

But now online violators in East China's Jiangxi province can be sued first based on their virtual identities, such as their nickname on QQ, an instant communication tool.

Earlier this year, Huang Songhai sued Yu Xishui in the people's court in Poyang county of the province.

Huang said Yu used a fake name to publish insulting and malicious words to damage his reputation on Poyang Online, a local forum, and this affected his life.

The court helped Huang look for the defendant's real identity and found Yu was a legal worker in Poyang county. Finally, Yu was ordered to publish an apology letter online and delete what he had said.

This new hearing innovation is a pilot program launched by the provincial high people's court. In addition to the Poyang court, another four courts in Jiangxi have also participated in the program this year.

The judges help the plaintiff find violators using virtual names first and then confirms their real identities after the court has accepted the case, said Zhang Liezhong, an officer from the people's court in Jiangxi's Duchang county, one of the five courts that participated in the program.

"The number of online infringement cases has been rising with the rapid development of the Internet, but many violators are not punished, due to their vague identities," Zhang said.

To solve this problem, the court where he works established a courtroom dedicated to hearing online cases, which started receiving cases in April.

"We've prepared for this special courtroom since the beginning of this year, hoping to cope with online conflicts in a more effective way," Zhang said, adding they had already accepted a case and begun talking with the plaintiff's lawyers.

The court also selected four judges to hear online cases. Those selected have strong interest in the Internet, are 33 years old on average, and they have at least three years of working experience.

"After all, young legal officers are more familiar with the Internet and have innovative ideas about how to hear such cases," he said.

Liu Honghui, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in online cases, welcomed this innovative trial method and said he thinks it is a progressive way to hear Internet disputes.

"A courtroom for online cases is very necessary because many infringements, such as slander, insult, invasions of privacy and intellectual property violations, happen frequently through the Internet," he said.

It has been hard for residents and lawyers to confirm violators' identities by themselves, but if legal departments intervene in investigating defendants' information, it may be easier, he said.

However, not all special courtrooms work well like the one in Poyang county.

"It's still too difficult to find online violators without specific names or addresses because not all netizens use their real identities when surfing the Internet," said an official surnamed Zhu, who works for Qingshanhu district people's court in Nanchang city, another court participating in the pilot program.

Zhu said judges in his court received a case about an online dispute in November last year.

A plaintiff sued a netizen named laohuniang, or tiger mom, saying the other party had slandered him on an online forum.

"We investigated the sued, but didn't find where he was from and his real identity. And the plaintiff withdrew the case in the end," Zhu said.

"Without enough information, we had to give up the case," said the official who declined to give his full name.

"Trials specializing in online disputes are a trend, but I'm pessimistic about whether it will turn out to be effective," he added.

To address this challenge, Liu said the search for online violators should be based on an improved Internet management system, such as real-name identity and the self-discipline of Internet service providers and forums.

"Now, when victims take violators in the virtual world to court, judges can ask websites to delete violating information, which is a breakthrough in dealing with such disputes but not a solution that strikes at the root," he said.

After all, the better way to solve online cases not only relies on a professional trial group or courtroom but also technical Internet skill, said the lawyer.

"Therefore, this innovative trial method still has a long way to go, and the effect will be shown after a long time," he added.

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