Wang Xin, CEO of Shenzhen Qvod Technology Co., stands trial in Beijing on January 7. Photo: weibo.com/bjhdfy
An open trial of four executives of a video service firm suspected of spreading pornography for profit has attracted a lot of public attention recently, after it was broadcast live.
Wang Xin, CEO of Shenzhen Qvod Technology Co., and three others stood trial in Beijing on January 7 and 8 at Haidian District People's Court. They denied the charge of spreading porn, which can lead to life imprisonment, during the trial.
Founded in 2007, Qvod offered a widely used online video player called Kuaibo with peer-to-peer video streaming technology, with its user base reaching around 300 million.
During the trial, the prosecutors and defendants exchanged fire over the key questions of whether Qvod actually spread pornography, whether it was aware of the circulation and whether it deliberately did so for profit.
Prosecutors said that 70 percent of some 30,000 files that police pulled from three servers in 2013 related to Qvod were pornographic. They said that the company knew that sex videos were uploaded, downloaded and watched.
Wang denied his company has the responsibility for spreading the material, and said it knew little of the pornographic content broadcast on its player. He said the videos came from third parties.
Wang argued that there was nothing shameful about the technology, since his company only provided the players and servers for video encoding and numbering.
Prosecutors cited web search results for Kuaibo in which porn was more often the result compared to results of similar searches on two other platforms. Wang said that made no sense, as the porn results of searches on other platforms might be higher.
Prosecutors said the company did not change its business model after it had realized that users were watching porn on its platform. Zhao Zhijun, a defense lawyer, responded that he received a lot of spam messages on the mobile phone, but China Mobile, the state-run mobile carrier, did not change it business model.
Chinese Internet users applauded the splendid defense and ridiculed the prosecutors and judges who sometimes had trouble dealing with the technical aspects of the case.
The tone of coverage in state media was mixed. The People's Daily called for the public to focus on the fact that users did obtain pornographic content via Qvod, and the Xinhua News Agency said that the defense deserved the applause.
Jiang Jun, a spokesperson with the Cyberspace Administration of China, said all Internet-based services providers must bear legal responsibility for their content and Internet users should support the judicial organs’ handling of the case.
Meanwhile, Meng Jianzhu, head of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC, said that more trials should be broadcast live, which helps the public better acquaint with the laws and the judicial personnel improve their abilities.
Wang Xin and Qvod
Wang Xin, born in 1980, graduated from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications in 2000, and his first job was to write programs at a company in the southern city of Shenzhen.
In 2002, Wang started his first software firm by using peer-to-peer technology to share music online for free. The service was first offered in the US in 1999, and one year later, it was stopped as it was deemed illegitimate.
Back in China, the government introduced the Sword Net Act in 2005 to fight online copyright violations. The government did not release a list of the companies cracked down in the campaign, but Wang’s firm was closed.
In 2007, Wang led his startup team to set up Qvod in Shenzhen. At that time, many Chinese companies had learned from the experience of Youtube to run online video businesses, such as Youku and LeTV.
The peer-to-peer streaming technology allowed viewers to watch a video directly online without having to go through the time-consuming process of downloading, given that the Internet speed at that time was not so fast.
Qvod saw its user base expand rapidly, amounting to daily visits of 15 million in 2008. That year, Wang opened the core codes of his technology.
Using the technology, anyone could set up a website to provide online videos that viewers could enjoy at the speed similar to that of large video websites such as Youku.
Gu Min was among the people who ran websites to provide videos, and he just downloaded the videos from online forums in the US and stored them on his server. He earned revenue from selling ads on the website.
Gu said that before the Qvod servers were closed, his website could earn about 3,000 yuan a month for him, while some large websites could earn up to 100,000 yuan a month.
Before 2010, pirated video products flooded the country’s websites. But the large video sites started learning US video website Hulu.com’s model of making money by providing copyrighted products, that year.
The country’s legal system also tightened up its stance on movie and TV show piracy with the implementation of the Sword Net Act year by year.
As a result, China’s major video sites, such as Youku, Baidu’s iQiyi, and LeTV, as well as Tencent and Sohu’s video sites, have been spending a lot to buy copyrights of both domestic and foreign TV serials and films.
Tencent, for example, spent 144 million yuan on gaining the right to a popular TV serial on the country’s first empress. The broadcast right to the NBA games for five years cost it 500 million yuan, according to company figures.
Wang had rejected capital injection from other investors, and realized that his firm, which relied on ads and membership fees of games, could not compete with larges sites to gain the copyrights at that time.
He had to stick to the strategy of attracting users.
In November 2013, the largest sites including Youku, LeTV, Tencent and Sohu released a joint declaration on protesting the copyright violations by Qvod and Baidu.
Baidu turned off its peer-to-peer servers immediately after the National Copyright Administration issued a penalty, but Qvod still continued its business.
Police in Shenzhen raided the offices of Qvod in April 2014.
During the trial, Wang has argued that the company’s player Kuaibo acts as a tool to help transmit the information online from one user to another user, and that Kuaibo itself is not the distributor of the porn products.
Wang has also said that his firm cooperated with the cyberspace administration of Shenzhen to control the harmful content, such as setting up a warning function to screen off the porn content using key words and list of blacklisted websites.
Zhao Zhijun, one of Wang’s lawyers, said after the trial that Wang has contended that the technology was innocent and he himself was just the provider of the technology.
“Wang thought that if the technology has holes and does not abide by the country’s requirements, the government should offer its standards. If no law forbids the technology, he could use it,” Zhao said.
Zhu Bin, a lawyer from Guangdong Yingle Law Firm, said that if we just focused on the technology, indeed it was innocent. “The uploaders have the responsibility of circulating the porn products online.”
But it does not automatically mean that Wang is also innocent, Zhu said. Wang’s company could charge for ads on its websites because of the large number of users. “Part of the viewership was gained through the pornographic videos, which indeed helped the company to make money.”
Zhu checked 668 cases relating to spreading pornography in 2015 and found that the judges had ruled all suspects in the cases as guilty, but handed light punishments to most of them.
Zhu suggested Wang’s lawyers should aim for a light punishment, considering Wang had no intention to spread porn. But he added that Wang needed to cooperate with the prosecutors in the investigation.
Zhu was the lawyer for defendants in two such cases - one involving a man organizing prostitutes to provide services and the other a man selling pornographic films online. The first was sentenced to prison for six months, and the second was handed one-year imprisonment with a two-year reprieve.
Zhao said that Wang has already considered the impact of his attitude on the sentence. “If he pleaded guilty, he would be sentenced to 10 years in prison according to the criminal law,” he said. “There is no scope for a lighter punishment.”
Ma Qiji, a researcher at Alibaba, said that he was worried a guilty verdict on Qvod would lead to the death of the peer-to-peer technology, which would hurt innovation.
Government data showed that Chinese Internet users reported more than 1 million cases of illegal online behavior, 65 percent of which involved vulgar and pornographic information, relating to cloud storage, online forums, twitter-like service Weibo and messaging service WeChat.
Zhu said that the country should make more detailed laws and regulations to manage the Internet. The government could also set up a review system based on classified content.
In a case related to similar technology, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in February 2002 that the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster was liable for contributory infringement and vicarious infringement of the copyrights of A&M Records, Inc.
Established in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, Napster provided a platform for users to access and download compressed digital music files, specifically MP3s, from other users' machines.
Some IT professionals pointed out that the prosecutors used few rhetorical skills while arguing with defense lawyers and had little knowledge of technology, nor did they gather the evidence professionally, the Southern Weekend reported.
In one such instance, the defense lawyers questioned the authenticity of the data provided by prosecutors on the pornographic content on servers, saying there were flaws in the process of taking the data from the servers.
Prosecutors had to admit the process had flaws and investigators had to do that for three times to confirm the result. The data was the core evidence provided by the prosecutors in the case, which will influence the court’s judgment.
Liu Hong, a prosecutor from Jiangsu Province, said that he was most concerned with the role of technicians in the case. After viewing the live trial, he said he and his colleagues felt technicians should also be involved in the case.
“Prosecutors are not familiar with the technological problems, which made their response slow during the trial,” Liu said. “It was due to the lack of knowledge of handling technology cases, and prosecutors should have technicians to support their evidence.”
The country’s top prosecutors have urged all prosecutors to cooperate with technicians, but prosecutors have not acted upon it, Liu said.
Cheng Wei, another prosecutor from a southern province of the country, said that the prosecutors in the case were young and had not prepared well. If he joined in the prosecution, he would ask technology experts to be present at the trial.
“The defendants talked about technologies during the trial, but prosecutors and judges knew little about it. If experts were at the court at that time, they could fight back from the technological angle.”
In the past, investigators only recorded the confessions and testimonies, and picked some as evidence to present to the court, and judges made rulings based on the evidence, Cheng said.
But the country has started using trials to find the facts of a case, because the prosecutors and defendants could have different answers to a question from different angles, Cheng said.
Cheng said it would take time for prosecutors to adapt to the change and improve their abilities. “As for the young prosecutors, they will face pressure in this case, but they would perform better next time.”
The article is translated and edited by Guo Kai