Tencent’s WeChat displayed on an iPhone (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Tencent’s WeChat Social Media Posts Count as Criminal Evidence

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese law enforcement agencies can now secretly request access to personal information posted on social media services such as Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, as the country shores up its ability to rein in online discourse and monitor public opinion.

Starting Oct.1, authorities investigating criminal cases have the right to ask for information posted on social media including WeChat and Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, according to regulations published on Sept. 21. They can then submit the data as evidence in court, the regulations read. But the process of collecting the information must be kept secret to prevent the leakage of national, business or personal data, according to rules drafted by the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security.

China is exploring ways to widen its access to the data of hundreds of millions of users of social media, to aid in national security or criminal investigations while also policing for online content deemed socially or politically unacceptable, from pornography to criticism of the ruling party. China has enacted stricter limits in the past two years as its online population has swelled: more than 800 million people use WeChat in daily communications, to share photos and post articles. 

Text messages, online chat records and blog information could be admitted as evidence in criminal cases since 2012. The country is now exploring broader legislation that will require internet network operators to provide technical support to authorities investigating crimes or potential breaches of national security.

“The breadth of duties to cooperate with authorities in investigations...is a concern, in particular given the relatively small role for judicial oversight in the procedures for conducting investigations in China,” Hogan Lovells lawyers Mark Parsons and Nolan Shaw wrote in a report, referring to over-arching legislation in the works.

The move to allow authorities freer rein with social media content is also aimed at cracking down on fraud and blackmail, according to the state-owned China Daily. Chinese police detained seven real estate agents for spreading rumors that Shanghai was about to change property market rules, igniting a public panic, the newspaper reported on Wednesday. And the Communist Party has ordered its more than 88 million members to refrain from commenting on WeChat about the party’s policies, or risk expulsion.

Authorities around the world frequently seek information from companies through court subpoenas, which they can appeal. Apple Inc. famously illustrated the tension between authorities and corporations when it refused to help the justice department unlock an iPhone owned by a suspect in a shooting. It’s unclear how frequently Chinese corporations try to resist Beijing’s requests.

With assistance from Keith Zhai, Lulu Yilun Chen