A local court in Beijing recently set up a work group to deal with cases associated with the Internet as an effort to probe into the legal issues relating to cyberspace.
"The main reason for our action is not because we are inspired by the movie Matrix, but because Internet crime has turned out to be an increasingly serious problem," said Li Dongmin, a veteran judge of the People's Court of Haidian District, in which is the Zhongguancun area, known as "China's silicon valley."
Li said the number of cyberspace lawsuits has been growing at an unbelievable speed. In 1986, China reported only nine such cases and in 2002 over 4,500 were on record.
"So the work group is one of the resolutions to investigate high-tech law breaches and crimes," said Ma Xiurong, a judge with the group, which is made up of about 10 experienced judges.
Ma heard a case last month in which an Internet game player sued a host company because his bonus and equipment in the game were stolen. The court supported the plaintiff's request for financial compensation.
"The player paid time and money for the bonus and equipment, even though they are virtual, and they are valuable to him, so he has the right to claim compensation," Ma said.
She said the bonus, equipment and accounts of some hot Internet games are very popular in the underground market and turn out to be targets for master computer game players.
However, the owners usually can do nothing about the cases because their belongings in cyberspace are not normally considered as real possessions. There is still no special law to protect virtual properties.
"We do have general laws to treat Internet crimes but the Internet application is developing and changing very fast, usually beyond the prescription of laws," said Ma, adding that one of the missions of the work group was to explore this area and provide sample cases for lawmaking and hearings.
In 2000, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, approved a bill on maintaining the safety of the Internet. The safety law and the nation's criminal code, which was amended in 1997, are the two laws that deal with Internet crimes.
They are far from enough, even though some government departments have issued regulations to rectify Internet applications, said Shou Bu, a law professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University.
The current laws and regulations cannot include all the situations on the Internet, which is changing every day, so the courts find it difficult to hear cases, the professor said.
According to Shou, Internet crime had been thought of as a computer-based issue that could only be committed by high-tech masters. As a result, the laws focused on protection of computer hardware, operating systems and communication related to safety of main databases, national security and similar issues.
But now there is almost no secret to committing crimes on the Internet. For example, hackers can easily get directions online to steal other people's passwords. "It's easy and it's happening every moment," said Shou.
Lawmakers and legal entities should be flexible and frequently updated if they want to control Internet crime effectively, he said.
Only 1 percent of all Internet crimes in the world are discovered and police will investigate just four percent of those.
China now has over 80 million Internet users, the second largest group in the world following the United States. In 2003 the transaction value of e-commerce in China hit US$60 billion.
(Xinhua News Agency April 13, 2003)