According to recent news coverage, ten domestic websites have been chosen to make forays with A-share listings in order to promote the development of new media in China, and at least one or two news websites aim to complete successful listings this year. Included on this list of 10 websites is Zhejiang Online.
Our market economy has allowed private internet portals to flourish, and it has also provided opportunities for a number of “official” and “state-funded” websites. This is beneficial for China’s political, economic, technological and cultural development. But we cannot forget that the market economy assumes an economy ruled by law, and the market economy cannot stomach rampant illegal activity. There is no reason whatsoever why major national priority websites with [government support and] all the advantages of the system backing them up should be exceptions to the same rules that apply to commercial websites.
The way things should be, however, is not always the way things actually are. There have been a number of times in recent years when internet portals have found themselves plaintiffs in lawsuits for re-publishing articles without permission, and most of these have ended in out-of-court settlements that were agreeable to both sides.
But the recent case brought by The Beijing News against Zhejiang Online in the Hangzhou Intermediate Court should make people turn their heads. Two years after The Beijing News brought its case, the Hangzhou court has still not rendered a verdict, but instead demands that The Beijing News bring a separate lawsuit for each of the 7,706 articles [for which copyright was allegedly violated]. The Beijing News has said it cannot agree to this, and so the Hangzhou Intermediate Court has rejected the suit outright.
Commentators have already pointed out that in this case the Hangzhou court has stepped way beyond the maximum trial period of one year. As to the Hangzhou Intermediate Court breaking this case into 7,706 separate cases, the former head of the intellectual property office of the Supreme Court, Jiang Zhipei (蒋志培), has said that “judicial organs should not commit such errors of common sense.” For Zhejiang Online’s part, their grounds of opposition have run as follows: all of the articles were “reasonably used,” and they are part of the “national team” (国家队), [in other words, state media], and “an important priority website of Zhejiang Province.”
When the local court decision has been infected by local protectionism even as these instances of widespread intellectual property violation are so plain to see, this means, I’m afraid, that Zhejiang Online, which refuses to acknowledge its own illegal activities but is now on a list of 10 websites preparing to go public, must deal with the problem of “credibility” before it can hope for a successful market listing.
When a website that serves as a public information platform, or for a commercial organization, has such an awful record of dishonesty and yet stubbornly refuses to recognize and rectify its errors, I’m afraid it must face questioning by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the public, and cannot be allowed to enter China’s stock markets, which have already suffered so much “hurt.”
In less than a month, China’s first official law concerned with internet regulation, the Tort Liability Act (侵权责任法), will take effect. Article 36 of the law clearly states the responsibilities of internet users and those who provide internet services: “Internet users and providers of internet services who use the internet to infringe the rights and interest of others, must assume legal responsibility.”
Even though Zhejiang Online cannot be pursued for its liability under the Tort Liability Act, it is very possible that the website’s credibility will suffer as a result of the recent case and reports in the media. After so many crises of integrity, the regulators of China’s stock markets and the public will watch and examine much more closely the records of integrity of those companies seeking public listings.
This article originally appeared in Chinese at The Beijing News.