On 1 June 2017, China’s Cybersecurity Law (CSL) came into effect. This is the first comprehensive legislation of its kind providing a framework for data protection and governance of network and system security. The CSL applies to (i) Network operators, and (ii) Critical Information Infrastructure Operators.

Network operators

“Network operators” are defined as “owners, operators and service providers of networks”. “Network” is deemed to be any system comprised of computers or other information terminals or equipment which are used for the gathering, storage, transmission, exchange and processing of information. The CSL applies not only to businesses in China which manage their own data network but also companies based outside China who use networks to conduct business there.

Critical Information Infrastructure Operators (CIIO)

CIIO are entities which provide services which, if lost or destroyed, would seriously damage China’s national security, economy or the public interest. The CSL provides examples of these, such as entities which operate in the public communications and information services, energy, transportation, water resources, finance and public services sectors.

Duties and obligations

The CSL imposes a number of key obligations on Network operators.

With regard to network systems, they are required to:

  • Set up internal security and management systems and procedures, including the appointment of appropriate personnel to effect a secure network.
  • Take technological measures to prevent viruses, combat cyber attacks and threats to network security (including monitoring the network activities carried out by their users).
  • Keep a record of network activity and security breaches and to maintain this for a minimum of 6 months.
  • Take security measures such as data classification, back-up systems and encryption. Set up a complaints reporting procedure.

With regard to personal data, they are required to:

  • Seek and obtain consent from the relevant individual before collecting personal data; such data must pertain to the Network operators’ services.
  • Expressly set out the reason for, scope and method of collection and use of personal data.
  • In the event of a data breach, make a report to the authorities, take necessary remedial steps and inform/notify the relevant affected individuals of the same.
  • Review or amend personal data at the request of the relevant individual/user.

With regard to the monitoring of user content, they must:

  • Monitor content published by the user.
  • Report to the authorities and maintain records of illegal content.
  • Remove illegal content.

CIIO are also subject to similar requirements.

Network operators are subject to “mandatory testing and certification”. CIIO are also required to sign confidentiality and security agreements with their suppliers of network products and services and assess cybersecurity risks at least once a year.

Enforcement

Network operators and CIIO are required to cooperate fully with and provide access to the enforcement agencies when requested to do so.

The main enforcement authorities are:

  • Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) which has primary responsibility for the supervision and enforcement of the CSL.
  • The Public Security Bureau (PSB) which has investigatory powers and enforces the CSL at local level.
  • The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology which oversees the supervision and protection of personal data by telecom operators and internet information services.

The CAC and PSB are empowered to investigate matters and make the appropriate enforcement orders. There is no opportunity for Network operators or CIIO to make representations at a hearing. If they wish to appeal an order, they must do so through the Chinese Courts.

The majority of cases prosecuted to date by the CAC and the PSB relate to Network operators who have failed to properly manage the data of its users, failed to take necessary measures in protecting the relevant network, breached rules in the collection and use of personal data and the management of the user’s identification.

Penalties/Orders

In the event of a breach, the following orders can be made by the enforcement authorities:

  • Rectification (which has been the most common order to date)
  • Suspension of business during the rectification
  • Closure of website/apps or part of business
  • emporary removal of apps or cessation of new user sign up
  • Imposition of penalty/fines
    • Individuals can be fined from: RMB5,000 (US$750) to RMB1,000,000 (US$150,000).
    • Breaches of the data localisation provisions (see below) may result in fines against companies of between RMB50,000 and RMB500,000 (US$7,500 - US$75,000).
  • Detention
    • Network operators can be subject to five to fifteen days detention for breach of certain provisions.

More than one punitive measure can be taken against a Network operator or CIIO per enforcement action.

Civil claims have also been commenced under the CSL and there have been four published awards to date. These have arisen as a result of incorrect or false information posted online and/or a failure to verify the accuracy of the information on a website as well as the posting of defamatory information and/or graphic images relating to individuals. Damages have been awarded up to RMB40,000 (US$6,000)

Data localisation

On 31 December 2018, Article 37 of the CSL, relating to data localisation will come into effect. The basic requirement under Article 37 is that “personal information” and “important data” collected or produced by CIIO must be stored in China. This is a controversial provision which has been the subject of much criticism. In 2016, a joint statement signed by 40 international business groups sought an amendment to this provision but to no avail.

“Personal information” includes all information (whether in electronic form or otherwise) which individually or combined with other information allows the identification of a natural person. This includes personal information such as the name, date of birth, address, identity card number of the individual, etc. The regulatory authorities retain the right to determine what constitutes “important data”. This includes trade secrets, state secrets and other such information which the authorities consider sensitive. This is likely to include information which is political in nature.

Subsequent draft rules and guidelines provide that Network operators will also be subject to the data localisation regime (as referred to below).

The draft Guidelines and Measures

The relevant draft rules and guidelines are:

  • Draft Measures for Security Assessment of Cross-border Transfer of Personal Information and Important Data (the Measures); and
  • Draft Guidelines for Data Cross-Border Transfer Security Assessment (the Guidelines).

Both the Measures and the Guidelines apply to Network operators. The provisions also apply to overseas network providers (even if they do not have a presence or operation in China) who supply products or services to a client base in China. In these circumstances, the overseas Network operator would be considered to be engaged in domestic operation. Domestic operation, under the Guidelines, means one which provides products or services within China.

The Guidelines provide factors which are taken into account to determine whether a foreign company is engaged in domestic operation, such as the currency used for payments and the distribution of products to Chinese companies or Chinese nationals.

Consent

In order to transfer personal information outside China, the prior written or express consent by way of affirmation of the data subject must be obtained by the Network operator. (With regard to the latter, this could involve the simple “click” of a “Yes” or No” button online to denote approval or otherwise.) There are certain circumstances when consent is implied or deemed to have been given, for example, when sending an email internationally, when conducting international calls and when making a cross-border transaction over the internet. There is also an exemption which applies in the event of an emergency where there is a danger to the life or property of the data subject.

Security assessments of data transfers

The Measures require that a self-assessment be conducted by a company which purports to transfer personal information or important data outside China. This will involve the preparation of a transmission plan which contains details of the data transfer. The plan is subject to a ‘legal’ and ‘appropriateness’ test. If this criteria is satisfied, the issue of whether the cross-border transfer is “controllable” is then addressed. Such assessment will be monitored by the Chinese regulatory authorities.

In addition to the self-assessment, there is also a second type of security assessment which is conducted by the regulated authorities where material data transfers are involved.

The key triggers for a security assessment by the regulatory authorities of a material data transfer include:

  • The personal data relates to more than 500,000 data subjects.
  • The size of the data to be exported exceeds 1,000GB.
  • The data relates to large-scale engineering projects, defence/military, public health, marine environmental, biochemical and nuclear sectors or involves sensitive geographical information.
  • System vulnerabilities and security safeguards for critical information infrastructure or similar information.

Penalties/Orders

Penalties can be imposed upon the company and/or the directly responsible manager.

The fines can range from the following:

  • Network operators: RMB50,000 to RMB500,000 (US$7,500 to US$75,000). The directly responsible manager: RMB10,000 to RMB100,000 (US$1,500 to US$15,000).
  • CIIOs: RMB50,000 to RMB500,000 (US$7,500 to US$75,000). Directly responsible manager of CIIO: RMB10,000 to RMB100,000 (US$1,500 to US$15,000)

These fines can be combined with orders for suspension of business, revocation of the business licence and/or detention.

Commentary

Multi-national corporations who provide either services or products within China will need to store personal information and important data which has been collected or generated within China and will therefore need to comply with the new Measures and Guidelines. However, at the time of writing these remain in draft form, and a third draft is believed to be in circulation but has not yet been published. Compliance is required by 31 December 2018, when the data transfer regime is due to come into effect. Companies must therefore move swiftly to be ready for this deadline. There are significant challenges ahead and the cost of compliance is likely to be high. In addition, the concept of “important data” continues to be less than precise and will necessarily increase the risk of exposure to criminal and, possibly, civil liability. This is more so the case since the regulatory authorities retain discretion as to how the term “important data” is to be interpreted.