Has it ever occurred to you that sending or receiving hongbao (red envelopes) through WeChat could be a crime?
The ongoing UEFA Euro 2016 has made betting through WeChat a "fashionable" way of gambling. As cracked cases show, gamblers can bet on the result of a soccer match or other games in a chat group by sending/receiving hongbao. The "hongbao" service allows users to make small one-to-one payments or to distribute small amounts within a group. Based on special rules of sending and receiving hongbao, such as betting on sports events, a chat group can be easily turned into an online gambling table.
Although playing cards or mahjong is a favorite pastime among Chinese, gambling is strictly prohibited. The boundary between the two is whether the organizer and participants have the objective of making profit. According to the Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China, running a gambling house, assembling a group of people to engage in gambling or making gambling a profession to make money is a crime, and offenders could be imprisoned for up to three years and concurrently fined.
In addition, according to a joint judicial interpretation by the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Supreme People's Court in 2010, transferring gambling video or data, organizing gambling through the internet or mobile communication terminals could be deemed a crime similar to running gambling den. Mobile communication terminals include cell phones and tablets.
But despite betting on WeChat or other social networking services, or SNSs, to make money being a crime according to these legal provisions, in reality it is very difficult to spot such violations.
First, since it is common for chat group members to send hongbao to each other, it is difficult to get evidence against those indulging in gambling unless an undercover agent joins the wagering group. Second, most SNS users use nicknames if they are not made to go through identity verification or use fake IDs, so it is hard to identify them. Third, the idea of monitoring online chats in real time is unrealistic, for there are millions of users at any given time. Fourth, it is not easy to filter the myriad of electronic evidence in such cases.
To better fight crimes, the authorities should seek app providers' help to crack down on people using their apps for gambling. App providers have direct access to online data on their platforms and use technology experts and devices to monitor and spot suspicious chat groups and personal accounts and disable all or some of their functions. In fact, app providers are obliged to monitor online activities and help law enforcement agencies to crack down on crimes.
According to the judicial interpretation, any entity is imputable as an accomplice in gambling if, even after knowing about internet gambling, he/she keeps providing services such as internet access, online storage space, data transfer, monetary transaction or other technical support. And a company providing such services could be held criminally liable.
Enforcement and judicial agencies have to deepen cooperation－by building an information sharing and filtering system, and improving their ID verification technology－to more efficiently combat online gambling. The central bank, on its part, could make stricter online payment rules to limit the frequency of payments and set a cap on the total amount transferable online within a certain time span.
And app users have to improve their legal awareness, as the defendants in some cases have claimed to not know that betting within SNS chat groups is a crime, even though there is no excuse for breaking the law.
The author Xie Caifeng is a fellow at the research office of Shunyi district people's court in Beijing.