There has been some recent reporting on a new lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County related to alleged censorship and surveillance of U.S. users on WeChat. Jeanne Whalen of the Washington Post (“California plaintiffs sue Chinese tech giant Tencent, alleging WeChat app is censoring and surveilling them“) explains:

A group of California plaintiffs has filed a lawsuit against Chinese tech giant Tencent in state court, alleging that the company’s WeChat mobile app has censored and surveilled them and shared their data with Chinese authorities.

Edvard Patterson of Bloomberg wrote about the lawsuit on January 11 (“California WeChat Users Sue Tencent Over Fear of Chinese Censors“):

Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a group promoting transition to Democracy in China, and six anonymous WeChat users said comments made using WeChat that can be perceived as critical of the Chinese government have led to the users’ accounts being frozen, causing them to be cut of from friends and relatives in China as well as their business clients in the U.S.

Whalen wrote about the broader issues in this case on January 7 (“Chinese censorship invades the U.S. via WeChat“).

The Citizen Power Initiatives for China press release about the lawsuit is here. It states in part:

Citizen Power Initiatives for China (“CPIFC”) filed a lawsuit today in the Superior Court for the State of California, Santa Clara County, alleging that the censorship and surveillance practices and policies of WeChat, the dominant social media and payments application in the Chinese-speaking world, violates numerous aspects of California law. Joining the lawsuit are six California WeChat users who have suffered significant financial, emotional, and psychological harm as a result of those practices and policies. The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the challenged practices and policies are unlawful under California law, issue an injunction against them, and to order that defendants pay damages for the harms they caused. The defendants are Tencent America LLC and Tencent International Service. Ltd.

The lawsuit is the product of a nearly year-long investigation by CPIFC and its attorneys, which included interviews with hundreds of WeChat users in the United States. It was inspired by outrage felt across the Chinese-speaking world over the role censorship and surveillance on WeChat played in exacerbating the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, as well as outrage felt by many U.S. WeChat users over their seeming inability to communicate over WeChat free of such censorship and surveillance, even in the United States.

The complaint itself is on the Washington Post website here. Here is an excerpt:

1. One out of approximately every six people in the world speaks Chinese. WeChat, a messaging-and-payments mobile application offered by Tencent (and which is sometimes used herein synonymously with the term WeChat), holds an effective monopoly on how the inhabitants of that world communicate with each other electronically. This case is about the portion of that world that uses WeChat in California (“California WeChat users”). California WeChat users are also referred to herein as the “Class.”

2. This case arises from Tencent’s practices of profiting from politically motivated, pro-Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) censorship and surveillance of California WeChat users (“challenged practices”), which includes the practice of turning over private user data and communications to the government of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC government,” and, together with the CCP, the “Party-state”), and which inflicts an array of harms. Specifically, the challenged practices include Tencent’s practices of: (i) turning over private California WeChat user data and communications to the Party-state; (ii) profiting by using California WeChat user data and communications to improve Tencent’s censorship and surveillance algorithms; (iii) censoring and surveilling California WeChat user communications for content perceived as critical of the Party-state; (iv) suspending, blocking, or deleting California WeChat user accounts and/or data over such content; and (v) prohibiting California WeChat users from withdrawing funds stored in their WeChat accounts when those users do not possess an account with a PRC financial institution subject to monitoring by the Party-state.

3. This action also challenges provisions in Tencent’s terms of service and privacy policy which, taken together, are oppressive, obfuscatory, and incoherent (“challenged provisions”). The challenged provisions include privacy-related terms that are deliberately vague and ambiguous with respect to whether the challenged practices are permitted or prohibited (“vague and ambiguous privacy provisions”), which in turn benefits Tencent by reserving to it the right to adopt self-interested interpretations. However, California WeChat users are entitled to clear, unambiguous, and testable language with respect to the nature and scope of their privacy on WeChat—in other words, to honesty and transparency.

4. Yet, even if the challenged practices were unambiguously prohibited under the challenged provisions, the challenged provisions include terms that make it practically impossible for California WeChat users to seek meaningful redress for the harms caused by those practices
(“remedy-limiting provisions”)

5. Finally, the challenged provisions include terms that impermissibly discriminate against California WeChat users who happen to be citizens of the PRC (“long-arm provisions”).

6. The challenged practices and provisions inflict multiple harms on California WeChat users, including financial loss, emotional trauma, and psychological stress. They are unlawful under California law because they:

  • violate California WeChat users’ privacy, speech, and equal protection rights under the California constitution;
  • unlawfully intrude on the privacy and seclusion of California WeChat users;
  • unlawfully interfere with California WeChat users’ property rights;
  • unjustly enrich Tencent at the expense of California WeChat users; and
  • violate California WeChat users’ statutory rights under California law.

7. There is no reasonable alternative to WeChat for anyone wishing to maintain regular contact with the Chinese-speaking world, and given the Party-state’s willingness and ability to suppress dissent inside the PRC, none is likely to emerge so long as the Party-state is intent on continuing its policies of suppression. Because of Tencent’s effective monopoly, California WeChat users have no meaningful choice but to accept the challenged practices and provisions as a condition of using WeChat. Thus, because the challenged provisions require California WeChat users to sacrifice a panoply of speech, privacy, and other rights as a condition of using WeChat, these requirements are unconscionable and void against public policy.

8. Finally, the challenged practices and provisions hinder CPFIC’s ability to carry out its mission of advocating for a peaceful transition to democracy in China.

The plaintiffs ask for the following relief:

A. An order determining that this action may be maintained as a class action under California Code of Civil Procedure § 382, that Doe Plaintiffs are proper representatives of the Class, that Doe Plaintiffs’ attorneys should be appointed counsel for the Class, and that notice to the Class be promptly issued.

B. Damages on behalf of Doe Plaintiffs and the Class, including under Cal. Pen. Code § 637.2.

C. An injunction against the challenged practices.

D. A declaratory judgment that the challenged provisions are unlawful.

E. An injunction requiring all California WeChat users to be able to use WeChat without being subject to politically motivated censorship and surveillance.

F. An injunction requiring Tencent to prevent California WeChat user data from being used to improve WeChat’s censorship and surveillance systems.

G. Attorneys’ fees and litigation costs, including but not limited to under California Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5.

H. Any and all other relief, including any additional equitable relief, that the Court may deem just and proper.

With regard to the evidence, one piece of research cited in the complaint is, Jeffrey Knockel, Christopher Parsons, Lotus Ruan, Ruohan Xiong, Jedidiah Crandall, and Ron Deibert, We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus, Citizen Lab Research Report No. 127, University of Toronto, May 2020. More research on WeChat from the same group is here.