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Case trial clarifies online chat group administrators’ scope of authority

english.bjinternetcourt.gov.cn | Updated: 2022-05-30

     

As people are nowadays more active in cyberspace, chat groups have become a necessary means of communication and more and more disputes related to the authority of chat group administrators have arisen.

Case summary:

The defendant surnamed Lin was one of the administrators of a property owners chat group. The group was established to post and discuss notices on topics such as lost and found and property safety hazards for the benefit of the group members who were the property owners of the residential complex.

The plaintiff surnamed Qian was invited to the chat group in 2019. On July 13, 2021, one group administrator posted a notice, asking all members to change their usernames in the group into a specific format which was “building number plus room number plus name” and all non-property owners and advertisers to quit the group. It also said that based on the opinion of the majority, those who refuse to do so would be moved from the group.

On July 20, a group member marked those in the group who didn't change the names according to the notice and asked the group administrator Lin to remove them. Lin then posted a message in the group asking those people to change their usernames accordingly.

On July 23, Qian said in the group that specific addresses are a matter of personal privacy and it would be up to each address owner to decide whether he wanted to publicize the address or not. Some group members opposed Qian’s opinion saying “every group has its own rules and one shouldn’t be in the group if he does not abide by the group rules”. On the same day, administrator Lin posted a notice requiring all group members to change their names as advised, otherwise they would be removed from the group. The notice was supported by a majority of the group members. After asking one more time those who wouldn’t change their names to quit the group, Lin removed Qian from the group.

Claiming that Lin had infringed on his privacy right, Qian sued Lin at the Beijing Internet Court (BIC).

After trial, the BIC concluded that:

Online chat groups were born in the internet era. They are online platforms for citizens to express opinions and discuss affairs based on specific social relations or common needs or interests. Thus they are by nature spontaneous and autonomous, based on group consensus. Out of necessity of platform operation and maintenance, and under the principle of securing the interests of the majority, it is the rights and responsibility of the group administrators to formulate and publish management requirements on areas such as entry and exit regulations and speech norms.

Setting up group regulations reflects the autonomy of online chat groups. In the case at bar it was a precondition that all group members needed to be property owners. The defendant and other administrators in the group already specified the real name requirement for the group when they established it. The requirement was based on the principle that “whoever establishes the group will be responsible for it”. Necessary identity checks also meet the group members' psychological need for social communication security.

Besides, not staying in that group would not substantially compromise the plaintiff’s interests in terms of information access as the property management of the complex had its own online communication platform and bulletin boards were placed in the complex.

Therefore whether or not the plaintiff should comply with the group regulations and whether he should be accepted by the group falls in the scope of social communications rather than civil legal relations, so no civil legal intervention was required.  

Details of the judgement:

Pursuant to Article 2 of the Civil Code and articles 122 and 157 of the Civil Procedure Law, the claim of the plaintiff was rejected by the court. The verdict is now in effect. 

Tips from the judge:

Online chat groups work based on the social communication function of internet platforms. Group leaders or administrators have the obligation as well as authority to manage the behaviors of group members. Online chat groups qualify as autonomous bodies where management should be carried out according to social communication norms. In this case, the defendant Lin did not directly infringe upon the plaintiff’s privacy, nor did he pry into or offend the plaintiff's privacy illegally or use any private information. Thus, even if the case fell in the jurisdiction of civil law, the defendant did not commit personal privacy infringement.

However, online groups are not a lawless land. The regulations on the administration of internet group information services, which were enacted on Oct 8, 2017, and the regulations on the governance of network information content, which were enacted on March 1, 2020, both have provisions on the exercise of management authority of online groups.