Singaporean human rights lawyer Ravi Madasamy, known as M Ravi, has been engaged to represent plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Tencent International Service Pte Ltd, the Singapore entity of Chinese tech giant Tencent, over alleged breaches of privacy via its instant messaging and payments app WeChat.

In a Facebook post on Friday (29 January), Mr Ravi said that he has been instructed by Times Wang — the lead counsel in the lawsuit — to serve court documents and papers on Tencent.

“This is my first international human rights law case on breach of privacy and on surveillance. I am glad to assist Times Wang and to be part of of this international team,” said Mr Ravi.

Mr Wang, who is based in Washington D.C., represents the group of California-based plaintiffs comprising United States citizens and Chinese nationals, as well as pro-democracy nonprofit organisation Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

Besides privacy breaches, among other alleged violations raised by the plaintiffs are unjust enrichment, negligence, unfair competition and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs alleged that Tencent, via WeChat, had been relaying private user data and communications to the Chinese government, profiting from using private user data and communications to improve censorship and surveillance algorithms, and censoring or monitoring WeChat user communications for any messages critical of the Chinese government, among other instances.

Certain provisions in Tencent’s terms of service and privacy policy, the plaintiffs said, are “deliberately vague and ambiguous with respect to whether the challenged practices are permitted or prohibited”, which in turn benefits Tencent by “reserving to it the right to adopt self-interested interpretations”.

Highlighting that other platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail are blocked in China, the plaintiffs pointed out that “no reasonable alternative” to WeChat currently exists “for anyone wishing to maintain regular contact with the Chinese-speaking world”.

“By comparison, most other methods are either expensive or inefficient, or require the person inside the PRC to circumvent government controls, or both,” they said.

Tencent’s “effective monopoly”, said the plaintiffs, leave California WeChat users “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,” the plaintiffs argued.

Among the reliefs sought by the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Tencent are a declaratory judgment that the challenged provisions are unlawful, an injunction requiring all California WeChat users to be able to use WeChat without being subject to politically motivated censorship and surveillance, and an injunction requiring Tencent to prevent California WeChat user data from being used to improve WeChat’s censorship and surveillance systems.

Tencent International Service Pte Ltd was named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit initiated by the California plaintiffs, alongside Tencent America LLC.

Tencent International Service Pte Ltd is the relevant contracting entity for WeChat users residing in California, according to WeChat’s terms of service.

Both Tencent International Service Pte Ltd and Tencent America LLC operate or participate in running WeChat in California.

Tencent’s website states that Tencent America LLC’s work “include[s] advertising, artificial intelligence, cloud services, entertainment, investments, payments, and security”.

Its “artificial intelligence,” “cloud services,” and “security” work includes assisting with the development, operation, and improvement of the censorship and surveillance practices and policies being challenged by the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Tencent.

 

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