Another headache for Chinese Big Tech: public interest lawsuits

In an announcement similar to a class-action suit, authorities say the "youth mode" in Tencent superapp WeChat doesn't comply with China's child protection laws.

A woman walks outside the headquarters of Tencent while looking at her phone.
SHENZHEN, CHINA - AUGUST 19: A woman walks outside the headquarters of Tencent on August 19, 2020 in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
VCG / Contributor/ Getty Images

Tencent has another regulatory headache, one that Chinese Big Tech isn't used to treating: On Friday evening, local prosecutors in Beijing launched a "public interest lawsuit" against WeChat, stating that the superapp's "youth mode" doesn't comply with China's child protection laws.

Currently, WeChat's youth mode, or parental control mode, disables certain functions like mobile payments and restricts the social media content that users can consume. The announcement didn't specify which feature of the youth mode violates the law. Hours later, Tencent's WeChat team replied publicly on Weibo that it would "carefully carry out self examination of WeChat's 'youth mode' features" and "respond to the civil public interest lawsuit with sincerity."

The lawsuit against WeChat hasn't been officially filed, just announced, and it's unclear who will be the plaintiff. The Haidian District People's Procuratorate, the local prosecutor that made the Friday announcement, said it would wait 30 days for relevant government bodies and civil society groups to submit evidence to the prosecutor. According to Chinese law, as Chinese publication Yicai reported, if no other group decides to become the plaintiff, the procuratorate can launch the case itself.

Child protection has always been a focus of China's internet regulations, even though some of its actions have been seen as overly protective. But leveraging public interest lawsuits appears to be a recent addition to the regulatory toolbox.

Similar to class-action lawsuits in the United States, a public interest lawsuit in China is filed on behalf of a group of people by prosecutors or civil society associations. Since it became popular in 2016, it has mostly been deployed in environmental protection and consumer rights cases. But in June 2020, China's Supreme People's Procuratorate said it would expand the scope of public interest lawsuits to issues like digital rights, the rights of minors and public health.

In March this year, short video platform Kuaishou settled a public interest lawsuit with local prosecutors in Hangzhou, the eastern Chinese city that has become a leader in the technology industry. Kuaishou was accused of infringing on minors' rights by collecting their information without notifying their guardians. While the details of the settlement deal are unclear, state news agency Xinhua reported that the platform was asked to complete a comprehensive reform and donate the compensation to relevant charity groups.

Then in June, Tencent was sued by a nonprofit organization Beijing Children's Law Aid and Research Centre, who accuses Tencent's massively popular game Honor of Kings of hosting age-inappropriate content, encouraging video game addiction and other charges. There has been no public update to the status of this case. But last week Tencent introduced more restrictions for underage players of the game, including a one-hour cap on daily play time.


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