China court ruling conveys right of user-generated data to internet firms – analysis

  • Internet companies’ data right based on investment in maintenance, data security

  • Lawyer warns data protectionism may lead to a divided internet, harming public interests

A March 8 injunction issued against web-crawling firm Kuaiyi Technology by China’s Hangzhou Railway Transport Court has defined internet companies’ right to user-generated data, several competition lawyers told PaRR.

The injunction, sought by Tencent, ordered Kuaiyi Technology to immediately stop providing four products that were based on WeChat data and obtained via the web-crawling technique, including 'Official WeChat account article information application programming interface (API)'; ‘WeChat subscription accounts and latest articles API'; 'Tencent rolling news API'; and 'Official WeChat accounts and corporate identication information within the administrative region', as reported.

Data crawling refers to the collection of data from websites using bots, or autonomous systems on the internet. Focused web crawling refers to information gathering on a specific topic or from a specific website, and a general-purpose web crawler does not have specific targets. A search engine is a typical example of general-purpose web crawler.

The injunction in effect protected Tencent’s right to content published by users on WeChat’s public accounts, Bowen Jing, partner at Guo Biao Law Firm, told PaRR. Jing added that the court’s recognition of internet service providers’ right to usergenerated data is an “innovative judicial decision”.

With the development of big data and articial intelligence, the number of data-related internet-focused unfair competition lawsuits are going to increase, Jing said. And as the range of legal protection over data rights has expanded and become more diverse, requests for injunctions are going to become more prevalent, he added.

Data crawling bots often create a large volume of traffic and block normal user visits, Gang Fu, senior partner at Co-effort Law Firm, told PaRR. Fu added that it is a “positive shift” that the court has recognized the burden caused by data crawling on internet companies’ daily maintenance and data security.

In addition, focused web crawling used by Kuaiyi Technology in the instant case only beneted a small number of people – the data collector, buyers, and analysts – rather than the general public, Fu said.

As Kuaiyi Technology violated WeChat’s robots exclusion protocol and scrapped data for commercial purposes without generating common interests, it is hard to justify its legitimacy, Fu said. The robots exclusion protocol is a standard used by websites to inform web crawlers which areas of the website should not be accessed or scanned.

However, as many internet giants adopt an isolationist strategy in terms of data rights protection, which strictly bans web crawlers’access, it may result in a divided internet and endanger the public interest, Chambers Yang, senior partner at Dentons told PaRR.

Currently, mainstream search engines in China cannot access WeChat public accounts, which have become an important platform for “we-media”, as media published by individual citizens is known, and users have to switch among platforms to search for information, Yang added.

Legislative efforts are required to better regulate internet companies' data policy, Yang said. Before that comes, however, courts are expected to balance the interests of corporates and the public when dealing with data-related competition lawsuits, Yang said.

by Kimberly Jin in Shanghai

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