WeChat will update its policy towards red envelopes (hongbao) to prevent gambling activities from spreading.
The recent UEFA Euro 2016 soccer championship made betting through WeChat a new trending “gambling” way. WeChat users can transfer money to each other by several ways, including red envelopes (see below). The user-friendliness of WeChat made betting even easier than before, making sports related gambling in private or group session chat quite easy. The hongbao service’s rules regarding spending and receiving hongbao envelopes can rapidly turn WeChat to WeBet or WeGamble.
Playing cards and mahjong is a common pastime in China, although gambling remains prohibited. The boundary between the two is whether or not the organizer is aiming at making profit from this endeavor. According to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, running a gambling house, assembling a group of people to engage into betting activities, or gambling as a profession to make money is a crime, offenders could be imprisoned for three years and concurrently fined.
According to a joint judicial interpretation by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court in 2010, transferring betting/gambling video or data, organizing betting through the internet or mobile communication terminals could be also deemed as a crime, quite similarly to running a gambling house. Mobile communication terminals include cell phones or tablets. Although, in reality it is really hard for the authorities to spot such violations. Sending hongbao envelopes within group chat or privately to each other is a common occurrence among WeChat users, getting evidence of a potential criminal activity such as gambling remains tedious, unless some sort of undercover agent joins the group and collect relevant data and proof.
Moreover, most of social network users use nicknames or fake IDs, so it would be hard to actually identify them. On the other hand, monitoring the discussion among millions of daily WeChat users or social network users and money transactions is quite unrealistic and nearly impossible unless the authorities engage into active cooperation with app providers, having granted access to real-time online data. Such app providers use technology experts and devices to monitor and identify suspicious activity and chat groups. These experts can disable personal accounts or some of their functions if fraud is spotted.
Judicial interpretation says that 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. Such a company could be held criminally liable. Enforcement and judicial authorities have to strengthen their cooperation, by building sharing and filtering system, improving their ID verification processes to enhance the efficiency against online gambling behaviors. The central bank that allows WeChat or Alipay users to link their bank account to their virtual wallet on these platforms could make stricter online payment rules to limit the frequency of payments and set a cap on the total amount that can be transferred within the same time span. App users should improve their legal awareness, in most cases defendants claimed that they did not know about gambling restrictions on online platforms such as WeChat.
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With the rapidly growing popularity of WeChat among China mobile and internet users, such forbidden activities might even get bigger. The law and the app providers have to find a way to cooperate if they’re aiming at getting rid of criminal gambling on WeChat or to a broader extent to other online social networks or platforms.