Be extra careful what you say on WeChat. That’s the joke many were making last week when new rules allowing the admission of digital evidence in civil court cases took effect.
Previously transcripts of conversations on social media, blog posts and online videos could be used as evidence but it was deemed less reliable than other documents or testimony. It also had to be validated as authentic before it could be considered.
The guidelines from China’s Supreme Court bring mainland courts into line with the lives of most mainland citizens, who now get hired, fired, paid and even proposed to online.
“The Chinese increasingly live online, not offline,” a lawyer told the Global Times.
“Knowing how to use digital records as evidence is particularly important for the parties to prove the facts of the case and protect their legitimate rights and interests,” he added.
Sina quoted a law professor saying that digital evidence “has changed from an auxiliary form of evidence to one of the main and most important types”.
Digital evidence has been admissible in the criminal courts since 2016, when the Supreme Court formally deemed text messages, emails and other electronic records as separate and valid forms of proof.
Yet as the online revolution has gathered speed, the civil courts have been slow to catch up, with lawyers relying on ad hoc rules to get digital material admitted.
“This decision marks the official confirmation of the evidence status of WeChat and weibo chat records in the interpretation of the country’s highest judicial organ,” an article on Tencent News said.
The topic went viral online with many Chinese joking they would now save every message that promises them something.
“My ex-boyfriend said he would love me forever and never leave me. I have WeChat chat records. Can I sue him?” queried one weibo user.
“Some people think the internet is a lawless place and that what they do there has no real-world consequences,” wrote another.
Others referenced experiences of being defrauded online and expressed hope that they might now get redress. But lawyers caution that the new rules will only help if the fraudsters can be physically traced – not always a given, because so many people use online aliases.
Like all evidence, the newly accepted material will also need to be tested as authentic.
“The authenticity of electronic data should be judged on seven factors, including the integrity and credibility of the hardware and software of the computer system that generates, stores and transfers the electronic data,” the Supreme Court guidelines read.
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