Key Points

  • The live broadcasting of court trials on the China Court Trial Online (CCTO) enhances judicial openness in China. However, this advancement brings to the forefront significant challenges in safeguarding personal information rights and interests. Primarily, the absence of precise legal regulations tailored to the unique context of live broadcasting amplifies the complexities of protecting personal information.

  • Spatial analysis has uncovered a profound shift in the processing of personal information due to the introduction of live court trial broadcasts on the CCTO, diverging from the traditional notion of open trials within physical courtrooms. This extension beyond the physical confines dramatically alters the landscape of personal information management, facilitating the aggregation of data on a scale previously unseen. This expansion, while beneficial in enhancing transparency, concurrently poses unprecedented risks due to the potential amplification of vulnerabilities and privacy breaches.

  • The emergence of live broadcasting within the adjudicatory organs demands specific attention when addressing the protection of personal information. Unlike extensive studies focusing on large-scale data commercial entities, there exists a pronounced dearth of scholarly attention dedicated to comprehending and mitigating the challenges inherent in personal information processing within the judiciary. The unique dynamics and the delicate balance between transparency and personal information protection in the judicial domain warrant a more focused scholarly discourse to address these distinct challenges effectively.

Introduction

With rapid advancements in Internet communication technology, China has transitioned into the era of Internet information and big data. The explosive growth in the scale of processed personal information presents distinct and unprecedented challenges for personal information protection.1 Specifically, the techniques for collecting, storing, and processing personal information are constantly evolving, giving rise to novel and multifaceted characteristics. These developments significantly impact information utilization, the varieties of infringement on individuals’ rights and interests, and the stringent requirements for effective information protection. Amidst this era of innovation, the task of ensuring personal information protection faces unseen complexities.

Since 29 January 2016, when Chief Justice Zhou Qiang of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) proposed the establishment of ‘intelligent courts’ grounded in cutting-edge technological developments, China has progressively enhanced judicial openness. Advancements in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, have been steadily integrated into court informatization. This strategic move has facilitated the promotion of judicial transparency and justice. On 27 September 2016, the official launch of the China Court Trial Online (CCTO) signified China’s formal entry into a normalized stage of online video broadcasting within its court system. To date, the CCTO has successfully hosted over 20 million live broadcasts of court proceedings.

The CCTO platform enables ordinary citizens to directly observe legal proceedings, effectively bridging the divide between the judiciary and the public, thereby enhancing transparency and accessibility in the judicial process. Nevertheless, while promoting transparency and safeguarding the public’s right to know, live broadcasting has raised concerns about personal information security.2 Millions of court trial broadcasts on the platform expose a wealth of personal information, including but not limited to names, ID numbers, birthdates, ethnicities, occupations, addresses, bank accounts, contact lists, health records, and even facial images. This disclosure carries inherent risks, including financial, reputational, and emotional harm to the affected individuals. Large commercial platforms integrate the collected information into databases, potentially transforming it into valuable data commodities. These developments raise legitimate concerns about misuse by criminals, identity thieves, or stalkers.3

China’s commitment to personal information protection traces back to 2012, when the National People’s Congress enacted the Decision of the Standing Committee of on Strengthening Information Protection on Networks. This decision aimed to regulate the processing of personal information by Internet service providers, other enterprises and institutions, government agencies, and their personnel. Subsequently, China elevated personal information protection to the level of legal safeguarding through incorporating explicit regulations into Cybersecurity Law, Data Security Law, Law on the Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests, E-Commerce Law, and Civil Code. On 20 August 2021, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), which, along with Cybersecurity Law and Data Security Law, constituted the first comprehensive legal framework specifically addressing personal information protection.4

Nevertheless, personal information protection faces intricate and distinct challenges during live broadcasting of court trials, fuelled by advancements in big data, cloud computing, and information and communication technology.5 Managing data and addressing security concerns stemming from the substantial volume of live broadcasts should not be underestimated. On one hand, unlike other contexts of personal information processing, the court serves as the data processor during live broadcasts, demanding a distinct approach to personal information protection. Adhering to due process, the adjudicatory should avoid dual roles as both a participant and an arbiter. Given its role as a personal information processor and a potential last resort for addressing violations, the adjudicatory faces challenges in applying existing legal frameworks.6 On the other hand, personal information protection in this context is not absolute and must be weighed against other values, inter alia, judicial openness. Considering that live broadcasting of court trials has become institutionalized as a means of judicial openness in China, addressing practical issues related to personal information protection holds paramount social importance.

Live broadcasting of court trials, aimed at enhancing judicial visibility and promoting fairness, has been a longstanding subject of discussion across disciplines such as law, media studies, and psychology.7 Both proponents and opponents have articulated their arguments from different perspectives, sparking ongoing debates and generating influential research. In the USA, Professor Wilson examined the U.S. Federal Supreme Court’s cautious approach to broadcasting half a century ago.8 Despite his belief that limited government-issued broadcasting permits potentially violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech, the court maintained its stance. At the state court level, the live broadcasting of court trials received the green light in all 50 states as early as 2001, while the federal courts remained more reserved in their approach to live broadcasting. In recent years, federal courts have become more open to live broadcasting court proceedings.9

Scholars who advocate for live broadcasting often consider aspects of judicial fairness, public education, and minimal impact on participants.10 Galloway and Rosenfeld assert that broadcasting court proceedings live contributes to achieving judicial fairness and upholds the constitutional right of the public to engage in legal processes.11 Before the widespread adoption of live broadcasting technologies such as television, the confined physical space in courtrooms presented challenges for public engagement during trials. Live broadcasting of court trials now facilitates broader public participation and enhances observation of the judicial process. Biber, in his analysis of the murder trial involving South African Paralympic champion ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, contends that live broadcasting strikes a delicate balance between judicial transparency and adherence to legal procedures.12 However, this approach may inadvertently cause emotional distress to the families of victims in certain instances. Additionally, the author explores how digital media technology impacts the interplay between dignity and justice within this case study.

It is noteworthy that divergent scholarly opinions exist regarding the impact of live broadcasting of court trials on transparency, fairness, and public confidence in the justice system.13 Critics contend that live broadcasting could potentially compromise the solemnity of court proceedings and affect the participants involved in litigation.14 A 2021 study revealed that live broadcasting of court proceedings partially constitutes a reconstructed representation of reality.15 This research engaged a comparative analysis of courtroom filming and audience reactions across various jurisdictions, including England, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Canada, and several US states. The findings indicate that a direct positive correlation between the audience perception, understanding, and trust in court proceedings does not consistently emerge. Viewers may experience a sense of deception due to the selective perspective by the cameras.

Scholars also exercise caution when considering live broadcasting of court trials due to their concern for the personal rights and interests of the participants, particularly regarding the right to privacy.16 During the early 21st century, as televised broadcasting gained prominence, Nasheri questioned whether live broadcasting can genuinely enhance the protection of rights and dignity of criminal defendants. As digital media assumes a central role in trial broadcasting, the concept of the ‘right to be forgotten’ gains fresh importance. The question of whether and how the individuals featured in live broadcasts can escape public memory stands as a pressing issue.17 Drawing from her analysis of court trial broadcasting practices in the UK, Anna K. Bernzen contends that while the primary argument for stringent camera regulation pertains to maintaining proper judicial administration, the potential risks to participants’ privacy have been insufficiently addressed.18

Considering that only a few countries have embraced regular live broadcasting of court trials as a means of judicial openness, scholarly research directly addressing personal information protection in live broadcasts remains scarce. Distinctive Chinese characteristics shape personal information protection during live broadcasts due to two major reasons. First, China stands out in its robust development of ‘intelligent courts,’ characterized by the implementation of artificial intelligence systems, continuing advancements in online litigation,19 and the gradual establishment of an online platform for transparent live broadcasting of litigation procedures. Secondly, existing literature on live broadcasting of court trials predominantly emphasizes individual privacy considerations rather than the broader realm of personal information.20 While individual privacy and personal information exhibit certain similarities, they fundamentally diverge in their legal implications.21 To address this gap in Anglophone literature, our study seeks to answer three pivotal questions:

  1. What challenges emerge in safeguarding personal information during live broadcasts of court trials?

  2. How does the existing legal framework address these challenges?

  3. In what way does a spatial approach shed light on the complexities of personal information processing during live court trial broadcasts?

The article is structured as follows. In addition to the sections of Introduction and Methods, the third section presents an empirical analysis of the risks posed to personal information rights and interests during live court trial broadcasts. In the fourth section, we examine the application of the current legal framework and highlight its inadequacy in safeguarding personal information during live court trial broadcasts. The fifth section adopts a spatial perspective to emphasize the significance of this particular issue, urging its consideration in future legislative and legal reforms. In the conclusion, we put forth several points for future deliberation.

Methods

This article contributes to a comprehensive project focused on safeguarding personal information during live broadcasts of court trials.22 In our analysis, we examined approximately 100 h of video footage from live broadcasts on the CCTO platform.23 Additionally, we conducted semi-structured interviews with a diverse group of 28 participants, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and litigants who possess first-hand experience with live broadcasts in provinces N and S. This primary data formed the foundation for our empirical analysis, allowing us to explore key aspects related to personal information during court trial broadcasts. Furthermore, we enriched our analysis by corroborating findings and arguments using legal regulations, secondary literature, and government archives. Specifically, we scrutinized the Personal Information Protection Law, and work reports, opinions, and decisions issued by the Supreme People’s Court to understand their application to the context of live broadcasts.

Our study involved logging into the CCTO platform, where we closely observed and carefully documented the live broadcasting process. Furthermore, we analysed how personal information is processed at various stages of proceedings and assessed its impact on personal information protection (see Figure 1). Complementing textual descriptions, our article will incorporate screenshots to visually elucidate the processing of personal information during live broadcasting of court trials.24

Screenshot of live court trial broadcast on the CCTO platform.
Figure 1.

Screenshot of live court trial broadcast on the CCTO platform.

Moreover, we conducted semi-structured interviews with judges from provinces N and S.25 Our interviews were designed to enrich empirical data for this study. During the interviews, we explored six main themes: general inquiries, legal foundations, live streaming formats, technological considerations, and open-ended questions about personal information protection. Each interview lasted between 30 min and 1 h and was conducted via WeChat or phone calls. When needed, we conducted follow-up interviews—sometimes spanning second or third rounds. These additional interviews aimed to clarify any issues arising from the initial discussions, allowing us to achieve a comprehensive understanding of personal information processing during live broadcasts. We also reviewed live streaming recordings of the chosen judges to customize interview questions. Additionally, we revisited video replays of court trials involving these judges on the CCTO. This allowed us to gain deeper insights into their responses and to cross-validate the data collected during interviews.

We also interviewed prosecutors, lawyers, and litigants to obtain diverse perspectives. We tailored the interview outlines based on the roles of participants, with judges serving as a reference point. We transcribed each interview, converting them into qualitative data. Subsequently, we employed NVivo 12 Plus qualitative analysis software for data coding and thematic extraction. Through this process, we extracted thematic patterns from the qualitative data and analysed the decision-making logic employed by various participants (eg, judges) to process personal information during live broadcasts. Additionally, it facilitated our understanding of their perspectives regarding the role of personal information protection in live streaming.

Empirical personal information protection in live broadcasts

Misplaced responsibilities of personal information protection during live broadcasts

Three prominent issues come to the forefront regarding the practical implementation of personal information protection. First, inadequate technical de-identification of personal information poses a significant challenge. Personal information, including names, ID numbers, ethnicities, occupations, home addresses, financial details, and health records, remains susceptible to varying degrees of public disclosure throughout different phases of court trials. These disclosures occur when judges verify litigants’ basic information during the court investigation phase, cross-examine evidence during court debates, and sometimes when court transcripts are simultaneously displayed during live broadcasting (see Figure 2).

Simultaneous display of court transcripts during live-streamed court trials.
Figure 2.

Simultaneous display of court transcripts during live-streamed court trials.

Moreover, many live broadcasts of divorce trials concern special protection groups’ personal information. During a live broadcast of a divorce lawsuit, the presiding judge openly disclosed identity information, including the names and ID numbers of two minors aged below 14 years (see Figure 3). Furthermore, the judge reiterated this personal information twice, ostensibly for the court clerk’s convenience to keep records, yet without implementing any technical measures to safeguard personal information during the live broadcast.

A minor’s facial image disclosed in a live-streamed divorce dispute.
Figure 3.

A minor’s facial image disclosed in a live-streamed divorce dispute.

Secondly, live broadcasting of court trials can potentially impact the rights and interests of non-parties. Considering all the affected individuals whose rights and interests are at stake, it becomes evident that the infringement of personal information rights during live streaming extends beyond the litigants to non-parties. As these individuals are not physically present during the proceedings, they remain unaware of any rights infringement, thereby presenting a challenge in safeguarding their legitimate interests.

Thirdly, personal information protection of court trial video replays on the CCTO platform remains inadequate. The CCTO archives a substantial number of court trial video replays. Some video recordings were persevered even prior to the enactment of legal frameworks such as the Civil Code and the PIPL. Moreover, courts exhibited limited awareness and practices concerning personal information protection. Consequently, a considerable number of live video streams accessible for replays on the CCTO may contravene regulations related to personal information disclosure. Despite the PIPL taking effect in 2021, these videos continue to include contents that are restricted from public disclosure referencing the Provisions of the People’s Courts on the Issuance of Judicial Documents on the Internet. Certain portions of the information even qualify as sensitive personal data. Such disclosures not only expose individuals to the risk of ‘human flesh search’,26 but also facilitate potential malicious collection and misuse, ultimately benefiting a small subset of groups engaged in illicit activities.

The court assumes direct responsibility for protection during live court trial streaming. Under Article 3 of the Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Live Broadcasting and Rebroadcasting of Courtroom Proceedings by the People’s Courts (2010), courts must strictly follow legally defined openness guidelines during live broadcasts or rebroadcasting of court proceedings. In cases involving minors, victims, witnesses, as well as other content deemed inappropriate to disclose, courts should implement technical processing measures to ensure protection. Additionally, this regulation specifies the review and approval procedures for case recording and broadcasting.

The allocation of responsibility for safeguarding personal information during live broadcasting of court trials is intricately linked to processing methodologies, the diverse roles played by courts and judges, and judges’ understanding of personal information as they actively engage in live broadcasts. Interviews revealed that judges lacked targeted training in personal information protection. Nevertheless, ascribing the disclosure of identity-oriented personal information during live broadcasts solely to judges’ lack of awareness might oversimplify the underlying complexity.27 This challenge encompasses judges’ internal comprehension of personal information and the external pressure of live broadcast evaluation.

Judges’ perceptions of ‘personal information’

Studies have investigated the impact of live court trial broadcasting on participants involved in litigation and scholars expressed concerns about live broadcasting, citing its potential adverse effects on litigants.28 Interviews in this study revealed that some judges were initially concerned about live streaming’s impact on them. Yet, the substantial caseload and the demands of judicial duties often preoccupy judges, making it challenging for them to discern significant differences between cases broadcast live and those not. Even without live streaming, court proceedings are internally recorded but remain confidential. Hence, some judges argue that live broadcasting may not substantially impact their ability to fulfil judicial duties. This, however, does not imply that live broadcasting has no impact on the court’s personal information processing activities.

In live court trial streaming, the presiding judge is seen as the captain of the courtroom, determining whether the litigation proceeds smoothly. Notwithstanding procedural legal requirements, judges maintain a level of autonomy. To process personal information appropriately, judges must first understand its connotation.29 Judges often use ‘personal information’ and ‘personal privacy’ interchangeably. While they prioritize the transparency aspect of live court trial broadcasting, they tend to overlook the intricacies of personal information processing during such broadcasts.

Notwithstanding the different wordings in the Civil Code, the PIPL, and the Cybersecurity Law for the definition of ‘personal information’, they all recognize natural persons as subjects and exclude legal entities. It is essential to exercise caution, as conflating information pertaining to legal entities (eg, commercial data) with personal information may lead to an overly broad interpretation of the personal information scope. While live broadcasting often defines personal information to include items like ID numbers, occupation, phone numbers, and home addresses, some judges extend this scope to encompass records related to corporate intellectual property, credit reports, and loan applications.

Our intention is not to criticize judges for any inaccuracies in their understanding of personal information. Rather, our goal is to highlight the substantial gap in personal information protection during live court trial broadcasting, as perceived by judges. Interestingly, none of the interviewed judges explicitly addressed the potential aggregation effects of personal data in live broadcasts and its broader impact on populations with similar attributes.30 Subsequent sections will delve into the datafication of personal information from live streaming.

While some judges are aware that personal information can be misprocessed in live broadcasts, particularly during the litigants’ identity verification, it does not guarantee that they will proactively take targeted measures to mitigate these risks. These challenges may stem from factors beyond mere negligence. As previously discussed, judges often possess a limited understanding of personal information, sometimes even diverging from established regulatory definitions. Nevertheless, equating personal information solely with privacy overlooks its distinct attributes and importance. Conflating privacy and personal information neglects the legal nuances for effective protection. Our subsequent analysis will explore factors judges consider during live broadcasts and their implications for personal information oversight.

Tensions between routine live broadcasting assessment and personal information protection

The SPC has actively promoted the live broadcasting of court trials to enhance judicial transparency. The 2009 Six Provisions on Judicial Openness and the 2010 Criterions on Model Courts for Judicial Openness, both issued by the SPC, explicitly include live broadcasting of court trials in courts’ performance assessment. These provisions mandate that a certain number of trials must be broadcast live annually. Courts receive rankings based on criteria such as the total number of live-streamed trials, viewership statistics, and the number of trials individually live-streamed by judges, as recorded in cumulative data on the CCTO. The SPC awards the top 10 high courts, top 20 intermediate courts, and top 30 primary courts with ‘Excellent Live-Streaming Courts’. Furthermore, the SPC designates the top 50 trials as ‘Most-Watched’ and commends judges as ‘Excellent Live-Streaming Judges’ when they broadcast at least 40 trials live.

The SPC initially prioritized quantity over quality in promoting live broadcasting on the CCTO. By 2022, judges and courts in Province N adopted an assessment category of ‘Judgments Posted Online/Court Trials Broadcast Live.’ This category contributes to the overall trial management assessment, which is scored out of 100 points. At an intermediate court in the same province, judges’ live streaming activities directly impact their performance evaluations.31 Judges receive a base score of 1.6 points for fulfilling their assigned annual live broadcasting tasks. For each percentage completed beyond the base tasks, judges earn an additional 0.2 points, up to a maximum score of 2 points. If judges fail to complete the assigned annual live streaming tasks, their score for this category is determined by multiplying the completion percentage by the base score of 1.6 points. In the absence of live broadcasts of court trials during the assessment year, no points are awarded for this category.

Likewise, in a primary court situated in northern Province S—a remote area characterized by relatively slow economic development—opportunities to adjudicate nationally significant cases are limited. Hence, the court seeks national recognition by enhancing its live broadcast rate of court proceedings. In around 2017, the court proactively set a goal for each judge, mandating that they live broadcast at least 20 per cent of the cases they preside over to promote live streaming implementation. Over time, the court achieved a 30 to 40 per cent live streaming rate for civil and commercial cases and an impressive 90 per cent rate for criminal cases. Beyond the compulsory 20 per cent of court trials for live streaming, the court implemented detailed regulations to encourage judges to live broadcast as many legal proceedings as possible. Judges who underperform or fail to meet other tasks satisfactorily may receive favourable adjustments to their assessment criteria by increasing their live broadcast proportion.

These standards significantly influence the decision-making process of courts and judges when it comes to live broadcasting of court trials in their daily work. Courts aim to meet the assessment criteria for live broadcasting tasks and enhance their performance in live broadcasting evaluations. The prioritization of personal information protection thus tends to be overlooked during live broadcasts. Paradoxically, as court presidents emphasize live broadcasting more, it can lead to increased risks in safeguarding personal information. Insights from a seasoned judge provide valuable perspectives in this context:

We have had four different leaders in total, and this is the fifth one. In fact, their level of emphasis on judicial openness … determines the quality and efficiency of judicial openness in our court. The downside [of the live broadcasting during court trials] is actually related to the fact that the court is highly bureaucratic … Although everyone acknowledges the benefits of live broadcasting, the specifics of its usage, responsible parties, and appropriate extent remain unaddressed. The administrative aspect [of live broadcasting] is evident. Greater emphasis from the leader could enhance its effectiveness. Without the leader’s active emphasis, there is a risk that even the minimum standards may not be met. Ultimately, the extent of live broadcasting’s success hinges on the top leader’s valuation.

Moreover, the volume of live broadcasts uploaded onto the CCTO platform is linked to the frequency of live broadcasting evaluations. In a big data study conducted by three legal scholars from Tsinghua University, examining the online publication of judicial judgments in China, it was revealed that certain courts underwent quarterly ‘mini-exams’ (quarterly assessment) and crucial year-end evaluations (annual assessment).32 As a result, there was a surge in the volume of judgments uploaded to the SPC’s China Judgements Online at the close of each quarter and immediately preceding the annual court assessments. Hence, the emphasis court presidents place on judicial openness, particularly via live streaming, coupled with the incentive mechanisms associated with court assessments, has a substantial impact on the prevalence of live broadcasting as well as the choice of live-streamed cases across various courts.

In criminal proceedings, it is common to selectively broadcast comparatively straightforward charges such as reckless driving or fraud. A prosecutor has provided insights into live broadcasts of criminal proceedings:

[Live-streamed] trials tend to involve relatively simple cases and have lighter charges, such as those related to provocation or affray … Additionally, we have been involved in a few major case trials related to organized crimes or serious offenses. Surprisingly, these impactful cases were not live-streamed … During the crackdown on organized crimes, there was a high-profile organized crime case, which wasn’t live streamed because it was highly politically sensitive. Typically, case trials of this nature are not live streamed. Furthermore, even though the court trial of the high-profile organized crime was not broadcast live, lawyers or other individuals uploaded trial videos online, leading to sensationalism. This ultimately led to the case being transferred to a different jurisdiction, with a change in prosecution and adjudication.

An empirical study also corroborated that judges exercise discretion in live streaming court proceedings. Among the 100 surveyed judges, 64 per cent chose to live stream trials characterized by clear legal relevance and straightforward facts, aligning with the court’s objectives for live streaming assessments.33

The live broadcasting of court proceedings on the CCTO reinforces the findings derived from interviews with judges in our study. Although the CCTO’s advanced search function offers only four duration options for hearings (10–30 min, 30–60 min, 60–90 min, and over 90 min), our investigation revealed a significant number of live-streamed court trials lasting less than 10 min.34 A substantial portion of these live broadcasts captures only brief moments during the mediation process in divorce disputes, often focusing solely on the signing of mediation agreements. Although these broadcasts may fulfil the assessment criteria for live streaming, durations of less than 10 min appear unlikely to contribute to legal education value or bolster public confidence in the judicial system. The protection of personal information receives insufficient emphasis within the framework of live broadcasting. Courts and judges, burdened by heavy caseloads and other responsibilities, lack adequate incentives to safeguard individuals’ personal information rights and interests.

Live court trial broadcasts without technical processing

Among the courts listed on the CCTO platform, the SPC stands out as the sole court that utilizes audio muting during the identity verification phase to safeguard litigants’ information. During the live broadcast of a contract dispute, the video stream intentionally employed a continuous ‘beeping’ sound effect to mask the agent ad litem’s voice while disclosing the litigant’s personal information, including their ID number, occupation, and home address.35 This court trial is not an isolated example of the SPC. In trials where identity verification is required, the SPC implements technical measures to protect personal information. These measures extend not only to natural persons’ ID numbers and home addresses but also to information related to legal persons, including their place of residence, organization code, and the name and position of their agents’ ad litem. It should be noted that the SPC’s technical treatment of personal information predominantly centres around the identity verification phase. During other phases such as court investigations, debates, and evidence presentation, the SPC does not take technical measures to safeguard personal information. A plausible rationale for this practice lies in the predictability of personal information disclosure during the identity verification phase, as opposed to other trial stages where potentially sensitive personal information related to litigants’ health or financial records may emerge as evidence.

Also, the SPC adjudicates a smaller caseload annually compared to other courts.36 The annual instances of court live broadcasts are even fewer because not all cases meet the requirements for live broadcasting. As of 12 April 2024, the SPC has conducted live streams for a total of 7685 legal proceedings. Although the SPC may not hold the lowest number of live broadcasts across all courts, it is worth noting that the Futian Primary People’s Court in Shenzhen has amassed over 125,000 live streaming sessions on the CCTO during the same timeframe. Additionally, the SPC, as the highest adjudicatory organ, has greater resources and a larger pool of technicians compared to other courts. Consequently, the SPC is able to leverage its abundant resources and skilled technicians to apply safeguards during the identity verification stage in each court live broadcast.

However, it is important to recognize that not all courts possess the same capacity as the SPC. Our fieldwork revealed that courts of varying sizes and economic contexts rely on technical support to maintain the proper functioning of their network equipment. As the construction of intelligent courts advances, courts have gradually established their in-house technician teams. Some courts opt to purchase third-party services due to a shortage of professional technicians. This approach, however, introduces potential risks, including inappropriate intervention and the misuse of personal information by third-party entities leveraging artificial intelligence technology.37 While equipment maintenance for live streaming remains critical, the size of technical support departments varies across different courts. Most court technicians are recruited through either civil service examinations or deployment of technical personnel from intelligent case management software development companies.

An intermediary court in Province N effectively employed the Intelligent Trial Process System, developed by Beijing Huayu Information Technology Co., Ltd, to enhance its judicial processes. Consequently, technicians from the company were stationed within the court to ensure the system’s smooth operation. Unfortunately, the court’s in-house technical staff lacked the specialized legal expertise required to identify personal information or sensitive data that needs to be protected and determine suitable processing methods accordingly. Moreover, their routine responsibilities were demanding, including tasks such as equipment inspection, maintenance, and software and hardware upgrades across multiple courtrooms. A judge noted that their court operates a sizable data centre requiring dedicated maintenance. Technicians frequently worked weekends to maintain and update equipment, ensuring seamless functioning of electronic devices in courtrooms during workdays. Given the intricate nature and volume of personal information in court trials, relying solely on technicians for technical safeguards—especially regarding sensitive personal information—during live broadcasts is evidently impractical. Due to their daily workload, technicians had limited capacity to thoroughly review content during live broadcasts, even for basic personal information checks.

According to technicians at another intermediate court, during the initial period of live streaming operations (from 2018 to 2019), the court technician administrators had the authority to delete videos stored on the CCTO. Subsequently, technicians in primary and intermediate-level courts faced restrictions. For deleting trial replays on the CCTO, they needed to contact Xinshiyun Company, the developer of the court live streaming website. Notably, court technicians are often unfamiliar with the specific procedures for such operations, as litigants rarely request the court to delete live video streams of trials out of personal information concerns.

Information disclosure during live broadcasts without technical processing extends beyond mere technical considerations. Some judges maintain that unedited live video streaming has inherent advantages, while acknowledging risks associated with live streaming and potential disclosure of personal information. Their primary concern is that litigants may perceive live streaming as a unilateral act by the court. Litigants worry about the potential adverse impact on their interests resulting from any editing, cutting, or pixelation applied to court proceedings videos, even when such measures aim to safeguard their personal information. Thus, some judges prefer to simply provide unedited court live streaming. By the same token, some judges choose live streaming through CCTO to uphold the integrity of the litigation process, rather than relying exclusively on the court audio and video recordings.

Power asymmetry in personal information processing during live court trial broadcasts

In this section, we delve into the intricate power dynamics inherent in the live court trial broadcasts, specifically focusing on the critical issue of live streaming notification. Our analysis draws from interview transcripts involving judges, prosecutors, and litigants.

In practical terms, courts demonstrate diverse practices in notifying litigants about live broadcasting across different types of disputes. Regarding civil disputes, courts generally do not provide advance notice to litigants that proceedings will be broadcast live. In some extreme scenarios, even presiding judges may not be fully aware of if their cases are being simultaneously broadcast on the CCTO, despite live streaming becoming a standard practice. During an interview, a senior judge from the commercial division recalled only a few trials being live-streamed since early 2022. Upon discovering numerous court live broadcasts featuring the judge on the CCTO in 2022 alone, she expressed surprise and acknowledged her lack of awareness regarding the live-streamed trials she presided over. Given judges’ substantial discretion in determining whether court proceedings should be live-streamed, it is probable that litigants are also unaware of their involvement in online live broadcasts.

When we inquired a judge presiding over civil cases about the significance of litigants’ opinions on live court trial streaming, her response was emblematic:

Indeed, this pertains to the provisions of the Civil Procedure Law, where legal regulations delineate what information should be publicly accessible.38 These cases, except those involving state secrets, personal privacy, or specific legal restrictions, should be conducted openly. So, in such cases, if the litigants don’t explicitly object, we can proceed with public hearings. Typically, these are ordinary civil and commercial disputes. Regarding state secrets, our court diligently reviews such matters. In cases related to personal privacy, the disputes [that I preside over] typically do not concern personal rights like divorce disputes. In such instances, personal privacy has limited impact.

The judge’s perspective on the necessity of informed consent from litigants for live broadcasts resonates with her peers. Their argument derives from the principle of open trials. Given that live court streaming plays a pivotal role in upholding this principle, it becomes a paradigm that courts should naturally adopt. Within this paradigm, court proceedings are presumed to be live broadcast by default, with non-live-broadcast proceedings being exceptions. In notifications of rights and obligations provided to litigants before court hearings, there is no mention whatsoever of ‘live broadcasting’39:

III. As per the Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Internet Publication of Judgment Documents by People’s Courts, judgments rendered by this court that have become effective will be accessible on the China Judgements Online. If a case is deemed to involve personal privacy or business secrets, and an application is filed for technical treatment of relevant content in the judgment document or for non-disclosure, such an application must be submitted in writing within three days from the date of judgment document delivery, accompanied by a specific explanation of the reasons. Upon review by this court, if the reasons are deemed legitimate, the relevant content may be redacted or withheld when the judgment document is published.

Interviews with judges reveal a prevailing preference for informing litigants about live broadcasts of court proceedings during the hearings, rather than relying on advance notice. Even when advance notification is provided, judges primarily choose oral communication methods, such as telephone calls, while seldom engaging in explicit discussions about potential risks associated with disclosing personal information during live broadcasts.40 The relatively brief notice period for informing litigants about live broadcasts—sometimes occurring even during ongoing proceedings—poses challenges, particularly for certain demographics, including the elderly or those with limited education. These litigants often struggle to fully comprehend the risks linked to public observation and potential personal information exposure. Despite this, a substantial number of litigants, placing trust in the judiciary, perceive court-controlled live broadcasting as not compromising the fundamental fairness of a trial.41 Consequently, they tend to adopt a passive stance towards the live broadcasting of court trials.

While the ultimate authority to broadcast civil court proceedings rests with the presiding judge and the court, it is crucial to recognize that the opinions of the litigants involved carry weight in this process. As previously discussed, judges often prioritize cases with clear-cut facts and unambiguous legal issues for live broadcasting, taking into account potential public sentiment. Although instances of litigants explicitly opposing live broadcasting of court proceedings are exceedingly rare, judges generally accommodate litigants’ requests to avoid unnecessary conflicts. In the words of one judge, ‘If a litigant strongly opposes or is unwilling [to have the trial live broadcast], we refrain from making it a mandatory requirement. Instead, we may opt to record the proceedings or explore alternative measures to honour their preferences. However, it is uncommon for litigants or lawyers to outright refuse [live broadcasting].’

This also prompts the question of whether courts abstain from live broadcasting primarily due to litigants’ requests, which often cite concerns about the improper handling of their personal information during live broadcasts. In practice, given their heavy caseloads and the desire to avert additional disputes or public backlash, most judges tend to accede to the litigants’ requests to avoid live broadcasting. This decision is often influenced by a pragmatic cost–benefit analysis. Consequently, judges’ assessment of litigant’s objections to live broadcasting appears to be formalistic, lacking a thorough substantive review.

Prior to a criminal case trial, advance notice of live broadcasting is provided exclusively to the prosecutor, if any party is to be informed.42 While the prosecutor retains the right to raise objections, the accused are not afforded the right to be informed about or provide consent for live broadcasts.43 Approximately one in ten cases in which they participate may, at the start of the hearing, prompt the judge to inquire with the court clerk regarding the live-streaming status of the trial. If confirmed, the trial formally commences. In the remaining cases, the prosecutor lacks the ability to ascertain whether the court is conducting a live broadcast.

In administrative cases, the issue of informed consent for defendants bears some resemblance to the process applied to prosecutors in criminal cases. A presiding judge in the administrative division from S Province candidly acknowledged the distinct nature of administrative cases where citizens sue government authorities. In these cases, plaintiffs occasionally exert pressure on judges by insisting that their cases, which challenge government actions, be live-streamed. To apply pressure on presiding judges, they may inform fellow villagers, friends, and families to watch the live broadcast of their case trials. Many plaintiffs explicitly request live broadcasting of their cases in their complaints or appeals, frequently leaving judges with a sense of powerlessness. To mitigate potential public sentiment and controversy arising from live broadcasting of administrative cases, the court often selectively informs the defendant while withholding notification from the plaintiff:

In such scenarios, where we have a trial to live broadcast, there is a 99% likelihood that we will not notify the plaintiff because it would increase certain public sentiment risks … In fact, there’s a level of selectivity involved in this. It’s quite a common practice. We typically select cases with legally unambiguous and straightforward facts, where the plaintiff demonstrates reasonableness, allowing the judge to approach the proceedings with confidence … Additionally, there’s a minimum notice period for the live-broadcast announcement; the court must publish the broadcast announcement on the designated website (the CCTO) at least one day in advance. As an example, if the court plans to broadcast on the 20th, we announce it no earlier than the 19th, adhering to the one-day notice period. The rationale is straightforward: we aim to maintain control over the live broadcast.

Typically, we do not explicitly refer to ‘live broadcast’ from the moment we decide to stream the case online until its conclusion. We don’t mention it during the trial either. The plaintiff is often unaware of the live broadcast, and we intentionally maintain this lack of awareness. We notify the defendant and the government officials. For individual cases, we encourage their superiors to attend court proceedings due to the online broadcast. We coordinate certain procedural issues with them in advance. However, generally, we do not directly notify the plaintiff.

The judge’s response sheds light on the reasons behind the decline in the number of online broadcasts for administrative cases, which has been consistently decreasing over the past 3 years.44

Applying the existing legal framework to live broadcasting

Complexities between open trial and live broadcasting of court trials

The constitutional mandate of open trials (shenpan gongkai) dictates that court proceedings must be conducted in public, with exceptions only when legal confidentiality requirements prevail.45 In cases concerning divorce or business secrets, litigants have the option to request non-public hearings. However, beyond these specific scenarios, courts are not legally bound to obtain litigants’ consent for open proceedings. Undoubtedly, live broadcasting of court trials serves as a distinct embodiment of the open trial principle. A crucial question emerges: Should live-streamed trials be regarded as the norm, while non-live-streamed trials persist as exceptions, akin to the overarching principle of open trials?

During live court trial broadcasts, the provision and disclosure of personal information serve as justifiable measures to uphold judicial transparency and fulfil essential judicial functions. Nevertheless, it remains crucial to carefully evaluate the logical connection between processing personal information and its intended purpose. The question of whether live broadcasting constitutes an exception to an individual’s right to informed consent remains unaddressed within the PIPL.

Article 44 of the PIPL grants individuals the right to restrict or decline the processing of their personal information, unless other legal regulations require otherwise. The ambiguity lies in determining whether the court’s processing of personal information during live court trial broadcasts falls within the exception outlined in Article 13 of the same law. Article 13 allows processing without informed consent when it is deemed ‘necessary to fulfil statutory functions or statutory obligations’. Given that live broadcasting serves interests such as judicial transparency and the public’s right to information, it remains uncertain whether these interests constitute exceptions to the broader public’s right to informed consent. Essentially, the applicability of informed consent in live court trial broadcasting remains a legal grey zone, necessitating additional clarification and the development of a legal framework to harmonize the goals of judicial transparency and personal information protection.

Furthermore, a debate ensues regarding the direct alignment of open trials with the statutory obligations of the adjudicatory organ. This debate stems from the fact that providing personal information during court proceedings and disclosing (sensitive) personal information without proper de-identification on the CCTO may not inherently coincide. As per the provisions of the Constitution and the procedural laws, the primary function of the people’s courts, as adjudicatory organs, lies in judicial adjudication. In fulfilling this function, people’s courts must process personal information during legal proceedings without requiring separate consent from data subjects. Conversely, open trials primarily serve the purpose of safeguarding the public’s right to know. Significant debate persists concerning the interplay between the judicial adjudication function of the people’s courts and the concept of open trials. Therefore, it becomes imperative to explore, both from theoretical and normative perspectives, whether obtaining separate consent from data subjects (litigants) or providing notification is essential for processing personal information during the live broadcasting of court trials.

Inadequate regulation of the PIPL on Courts’ personal information processing activities

Positioned as a significant milestone in China’s legislative landscape for personal information protection, the PIPL boasts substantial normative content. Article 33 of the PIPL explicitly delineates its applicability to state organs. Nevertheless, the extent to which the PIPL applies to situations involving personal information during live court trial broadcasts by adjudicatory authorities warrants thorough examination.

The PIPL’s legislative rationale lies in its equitable treatment of state organs along with other personal information processors, subject to the same legal framework. Yet, when viewed through the lens of the ‘unified regulation’ legislative model, the PIPL predominantly caters to scenarios involving private organizations processing personal information, while the activities of state organs diverge significantly from these contexts. Infringement risks to personal information rights and interests emanate from both private institutions and state organs. However, substantial disparities exist between these entities concerning organizational structures, objectives, methods, and accountability mechanisms. Applying the same regulatory approach to these distinct risks sources complicates the effective enforcement of the Law concerning state organs’ processing of personal information. Hence, Wang Xixin contends that the PIPL’s provisions regarding the application of this Law to state organs’ personal information processing activities retain a symbolic character.46 We concur with this assessment, emphasizing that despite their shared status as state organs, the personal information processing practices of adjudicatory bodies markedly differ from those of administrative organs. Therefore, adjudicatory organs should not directly adopt the personal information processing norms applicable to administrative counterparts.

First, individuals face challenges seeking legal recourse when a court, acting as an information processor, denies them the right to exercise personal information processing activities. Article 50 of the PIPL explicitly addresses the justiciability of a personal information processor’s rejection of an individual’s request to exercise their rights. Simultaneously, Article 69 establishes that a personal information processor shall be liable for damages and other tortious liabilities if they violate individuals’ rights and interests during personal information processing, without being able to demonstrate their innocence. In cases where the personal information processor is either a private organization or an administrative arm of state organs, no jurisprudential impediment exists for applying these provisions, thereby ensuring the protection of natural person’s lawful rights and interests in information processing activities. Nevertheless, during live court trial broadcasts, the adjudicatory organ assumes a dual identity—as both an information processor and an entity for legal recourse. When the personal information rights and interests of the involved parties are harmed during live trials, determining whether to pursue a civil lawsuit or administrative litigation becomes complex. Naturally, litigation and other judicial remedies are not the only way to redress the personal information-related rights and interests during live court trial broadcasts. However, implementing this approach within the context of live court trial broadcasts remains practically challenging.

Secondly, the personal information protection authorities specified in the PIPL lack the organizational competence to oversee the personal information processing activities of adjudicatory bodies. Article 60 of the Law establishes a framework involving national and local departments responsible for personal information protection. However, neither the Cyberspace Administration nor the relevant State Council departments (such as the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, etc)—nor even local government bodies—possess the authority to oversee the personal information processing activities of the People’s Courts, hindering their ability to fulfil their designated powers and functions. Consequently, the personal information protection supervisory bodies established by the PIPL do not seem directly suited for overseeing personal information processing within the judicial context.

Lastly, implementing measures taken by personal information protection departments to address information security risks and incidents within the judiciary proves challenging. For instance, Article 64 of the PIPL outlines interview (yuetan) and compliance audit measures. While the Cyberspace Administration has issued regulations for interviewing Internet news and information service units since 2015, no specific regulations exist for interviewing the legal representatives of state organs. In practice, the Cyberspace Administration conducted interviews with 8608 website platforms in 2022, including prominent online platforms such as Taobao, Sina Weibo, Tencent WeChat, and DDT. Viewed from the interviewees’ perspective—primarily private entities—numerous platforms faced fines and other administrative penalties as a result of these interviews. Interviews, fundamentally an administrative law enforcement tool, prove challenging when applied to the personal information processing activities of adjudicatory organs. Likewise, auditing the compliance of adjudicatory bodies presents difficulties.

In summary, while the legislator aims to include state organs’ processing of personal information within the regulatory scope through ‘unified regulation’, practical challenges arise due to insufficient consideration of the unique identity of the adjudicatory organ as a personal information processor during live court trial broadcasts. In such trials, the people’s courts assume a dual role: that of the judiciary and also as processors of personal information. Given its status as an adjudicatory organ, the court cannot be directly encompassed by the regulatory framework designed for private organizations by the personal information protection department. Simultaneously, as an adjudicatory body, the court processes substantial amounts of personal information, posing challenges in addressing infringements on personal rights through litigation. To better address the practical requirements of personal information protection during live trial broadcasting, a comprehensive approach is necessary. This involves recognizing the court’s unique role as a personal information processor and integrating the specific features of personal information processing within the trial broadcast context.

Limitations of personal information protection norms in judicial documents

Among the judicial interpretations and normative documents issued by the SPC, there are no regulations exclusively for the protection of personal information. Existing norms related to the protection of personal information are mainly focused on the institution of issuance of judgments on the Internet, online litigation rules, the protection of personal information of special subjects involved in the litigation, and the protection of personal information security supporting mechanisms and institution construction (see Supplementary Appendix). The judicial norms concerning the protection of personal information demonstrate a trend towards stronger safeguards and regulation of information processing, and also reflect the judiciary’s evolving understanding of personal information protection as society progresses and judicial practices transform. However, the number of judicial interpretations and judicial documents related to personal information protection norms is still relatively limited, the content is largely principled, and some judicial interpretations exhibit a certain time lag or inconsistencies with the provisions issued later.

At present, two key documents issued by the SPC regulate live broadcasts: the Provisions on the Live Broadcasting and Rebroadcasting of Court Trials by the People’s Courts in 2010 and the revised Court Rules of the People’s Courts of the People’s Republic of China from 2016. The former outlines the fundamental principles related to live broadcasting and rebroadcasting, including aspects such as the scope of cases, application procedures, approval processes, responsible authorities for supervision and management, emergency plans, and equipment operation. The latter document builds upon the foundation laid by the former and further elaborates on the types of cases eligible for live streaming. These criteria include cases of high public interest, significant social impact, or substantial educational value, all aimed at promoting the rule of law. These regulations strive to enhance transparency, fairness and standardization in live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials, ultimately advancing judicial justice and fostering the development of legal civilization.

However, the two aforementioned documents no longer entirely align with the current practice of live-streaming court trials. In the 2010s, court proceedings primarily used text and image formats for live-streaming, with television as the primary medium for video-based court proceedings. These regulations primarily pertained to cases falling within the specified three categories. Yet, as live-streaming court proceedings evolved, particularly after the establishment of the CCTO in 2016, the broadcasting medium transitioned from television to the Internet. Simultaneously, the format transformed from text and images to online video-based court proceedings. This significant shift necessitated a thorough re-evaluation of existing regulations to ensure their continued relevance in the dynamic landscape of court proceeding transparency.

Moreover, the provisions related to live broadcasting in the 2016 revised Court Rules of the People’s Courts of the People’s Republic of China do not differ significantly from those in the 2010 Provisions.47 In contrast to the amended Provisions on the Publication of Judgments on the Internet by the People’s Courts, which emphasize enhanced personal information protection in judgment publication, the 2010 Provisions are inadequate for addressing the current reality of processing a substantial volume of personal information by courts during live court trial broadcasts. Given the divergent requirements for personal information protection between China Judgements Online and CCTO platforms, efforts such as anonymization and other protective measures in judgment publication become ineffective, as judgments remain associated with their live court trial broadcasts and replays.

While the existing judicial interpretations and documents cannot be directly applied at the moment, they provide valuable insights into regulating personal information processing during live broadcasting. For instance, the SPC’s response on 12 December 2014, emphasized that ‘publishing judicial documents on the Internet constitutes the public disclosure of case trial results’, addressing concerns related to concealing personal information in such documents.48 In contrast, the live broadcasting of court trials provides real-time, dynamic disclosure of the trial process within the courtroom. The two modes of disclosure significantly differ: written judgments are textual, while live-streamed proceedings involve video content with substantial facial and auditory information. Written judgments remain static uploads post-adjudication, whereas live broadcasting provides real-time streaming and subsequent video replay. This stark contrast affects the complexity and control over personal information processing. In the Internet era, once content containing facial information, such as photos and videos, is uploaded to the Internet, it becomes exceedingly difficult to completely remove it from cyberspace.49 For example, court trial video live streams, even if removed from live-streaming platforms, may persist on other online platforms or devices, posing an ongoing risk to individuals’ personal information rights and interests.

Although existing regulations address audio–video recordings of court trials within courtrooms, they struggle to effectively regulate videos stored on the Internet through live broadcasting of court trials. The Several Provisions on the Audio-Video Recordings of Court Trials by the People’s Courts govern synchronized recordings and videotapes of court proceedings within courtrooms. These provisions align with guidelines specified in the Measures for the Administration of Litigation Records by People’s Courts and the Interim Measures for the Administration of the Electronic Litigation Records of People’s Courts. These regulations define retention periods for court recordings and specify entities qualified to copy or transcribe them. However, these regulations do not explicitly address jurisdiction concerning videos stored online through live broadcasting of court trials. Consequently, court trial videos containing sensitive personal information pose an ongoing risk of disclosure.

Spatializing personal information protection in live broadcasting

‘Aggregation’ of personal information in routinized live court trial broadcasts

The progress toward judicial openness in China is intricately tied to the rise of online platforms such as ‘China Judicial Process Information Online’, ‘China Judgements Online’, ‘China’s Enforcement Information Disclosure Online’,50 and the ‘China Court Trial Online’. These platforms have digitized a wealth of information that was previously available only in paper form. For instance, as of 16 January 2023, the China Judgements Online contains over 138 million documents with an astonishing total of nearly 10 billion visits. This extensive repository of publicly accessible judgments serves as valuable source material for academic research in the field of law. For instance, Professor Liebman and colleagues conducted empirical research on the rate of online publication of judgments by courts in Henan Province.51 Their aim was to uncover opportunities and challenges in utilizing the massive online court judgments for research purposes. Likewise, Professor Björn Ahl and his associates acknowledged the potential impact of utilizing the open database established by the SPC for research on judicial documents.52 They found that this database has created new channels of communication, influencing the relationship between the courts and the public, as well as the status of judges within the judicial institutions. Furthermore, the open database has fostered shifts in communication structures among legal experts, consequently promoting specialization within the legal field.

Despite extensive research based on judicial document databases, academic attention on the digitization of personal information during live court trial broadcasts remains notably limited. Although judges primarily consider personal information from an individual privacy perspective, significant distinctions exist between the two.53 While both involve sensitivity, they differ in the breath of scope and the potential consequences for right holders. The public disclosure of sensitive personal information during live broadcasts can inflict substantial reputational, financial, and emotional harm upon data subjects, a consequence readily apparent. Paradoxically, seemingly ‘harmless’ personal information disclosed during live broadcasts can significantly compromise privacy when intertwined with other information, such as financial status, health records, consumption history, and travel records. Professor Daniel J Solove, a renowned legal scholar in privacy and information technology, draws attention to the ‘aggregation problem’:

Viewed in isolation, each piece of our day-to-day information is not all that telling; viewed in combination, it begins to paint a portrait about our personalities. The aggregation problem arises from the fact that the digital revolution has enabled information to be easily amassed and combined. Even information in public records that is superficial or incomplete can be quite useful in obtaining more data about individuals. Information breeds information.54

Imagine a scenario where an individual’s ID number is acquired. Although this piece of information alone may not immediately divulge much, it acts as a critical gateway to accessing a person’s comprehensive financial records, educational history, employment details, medical records, travel logs, and other sensitive information. Therefore, it is imperative to carefully examine the aggregate effects of personal information disclosed during large-scale mundane live court trial broadcasts.

The disclosure of personal information during live broadcasts of court trials is characterized by immediacy, unpredictability, and repetition,55 transcending the confines of conventional temporal and spatial limitations. Considering the obligation of providing accurate and truthful personal information during judicial proceedings, any improper processing of such information can have significant repercussions on the privacy rights and interests of trial participants, as well as unrelated individuals. Within court proceedings, the abrupt and/or extensive public exposure of specific personal details, particularly sensitive information, may lead to swift dissemination and circulation across online platforms. Occasionally, this information is repurposed for secondary uses, resulting in serious consequences such as privacy breaches and financial losses. The risks associated with disclosing personal information during live-streamed court proceedings are challenging to mitigate, whether the court processes personal information in accordance with the ‘fulfilling statutory obligations and duties’ or follows ‘notice-consent’ principles. Additionally, the public disclosure of personal information during court proceedings confers a degree of legitimacy on other data processors to reprocess such information.56

Without a doubt, courts have become major processors of personal information within state institutions. Their daily caseload encompasses a wide range of personal data, spanning resident ID numbers, financial status, and even criminal records. Viewed from an information quality standpoint, the personal information amassed by courts frequently exceeds that obtained by commercial entities following the ‘notice-and-consent’ approach. Courts collect personal information differently from commercial entities, relying less on consent and more on compliance requirements. It is important to note that this distinction does not denigrate the quality of information collected by commercial entities. Instead, the court’s distinct role as a state organ, coupled with the rigour of the litigation process, inherently ensures the authenticity and precision of processed personal information.

Consider personal identity information in court proceedings, Article 209 of the Interpretation on the Application of the Civil Procedure Law, amended in 2022, specifies that when a plaintiff provides specific and unequivocal information about the defendant, such as their name, address, or other distinguishing details, it constitutes identification of a definite defendant. Should the information about the defendant provided in the complaint fail to establish a clear defendant, the court may request the plaintiff to amend it for greater precision. However, if even after the amendment, a clear defendant remains elusive, the court will render a ruling rejecting the case due to insufficient identification. In essence, personal identity information in court proceedings must be truthful, accurate, and sufficient to establish the uniqueness of the parties involved. Additionally, Several Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Evidence in Civil Proceedings emphasize the critical role of accurate personal information throughout litigation. For example, Article 63 explicitly outlines the duty of the parties to provide truthful and complete statements regarding the facts of the case. Intentionally making false statements that obstruct the people’s court in its proceedings can result in penalties in accordance with the provisions of the Civil Procedure Law. Other provisions of this regulation also highlight the requirement for accuracy and truthfulness of personal information in the litigation process, including that of witnesses, experts, and investigators.

In the realm of commercial data aggregation, the increasing use of ‘big data’ tools allow for analysing individuals, predicting behaviours, and influencing decision making. Notably, live court trial broadcasts serve as a rich source of high-quality personal data for extraction. Empowered by vast datasets, cost-effective storage, and robust computational resources, these aggregators and their clients can analyse billions of discrete data points, revealing previously concealed patterns. As Richards and King have warned about the ethical implications of big data, ‘[t]he increasing adoption of big data is such that all kinds of human activity, ranging from dating to hiring, voting, policing, and identifying terrorists, have already become heavily influenced by big data techniques.’57

Although individual pieces of information within court records may appear harmless in isolation, the aggregation of such data with other publicly available information can significantly infringe upon individual data rights. From a comparative law standpoint, it becomes evident that a significant volume of information within American court records garners the interest of commercial entities. These organizations aggregate and consolidate information from both governmental and private sources. Entities like Acxiom, ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, and the National Credit Bureau frequently extract personal identity details from court records and merge them with data from various other sources, resulting in comprehensive profiles for nearly every American.

Similarly, in China, various data aggregators collect and consolidate information from court records. Notably, the Wolters Kluwer database seamlessly integrates the contents of judgments and progressively cross-references live court trial broadcasts. Even judges frequently use the Wolters Kluwer database for case law retrieval. While the utilization of judicial document information has reached relative maturity, the acquisition and processing of video data lag behind. Nevertheless, this does not preclude the future development of adept techniques for parsing courtroom live-stream webpages, analysing their content, and securely storing the data. Such advancements could potentially lead to the inadvertent exposure of sensitive personal information.

As big data technology matures, it can exploit the recurrent presentation of personal information in online courtroom live-streams. By integrating this fragmented information with other relevant information, a comprehensive ‘digital profile’ of an individual can be reconstructed. Yet, considering the sensitivity, timeliness, and accuracy concerns surrounding personal information, this digitized image—constructed from fragmented data—may suffer significant distortion, potentially violating the personality rights of the data subject.58 Unfortunately, the current legal framework for personal data protection faces difficulties in adequately addressing the aggregation of personal information arising from routine online video live broadcasts.

Alienation of personal information processing by live broadcasts

While courts have historically been open to the public, attending court proceedings unrelated to one’s own case remains logistically challenging. With cases now being live broadcasted on the CCTO, the public can easily watch live court trial broadcasts or replays. Conversely, online video live broadcasting facilitates commercial entities’ access to personal information from court proceedings. While such information was accessible in traditional open trials, the current ease of collecting it is unparalleled. Scholars have aptly termed this phenomenon ‘the loss of practical obscurity’.59 It refers to situations where information, though publicly accessible, effectively retains a private quality due to difficulties in accessing, locating, or contextualizing it.60 Peter Winn is among the early scholars who explored how the introduction of electronic filing systems has eliminated the previous ‘practical obscurity’ of publicly available information. He highlights that while online access to information channels serves crucial public interests, such as enhancing the public’s right to knowledge and oversight, it also introduces significant privacy challenges.61

In the era of paper court records, individuals were required to possess knowledge of the specific case number and seek assistance from court clerks to access relevant court records.62 Conversely, the emergence of electronic records has facilitated efficient searching, categorization, and integration of information from court archives. In essence, users of electronic information no longer need detailed knowledge about the specific case or its provenance within court records. As a result, these electronic data have transformed into de-identified data, rendering it suitable for diverse applications.

Electronic record systems not only enhance public access to court records but also empower individuals to utilize this information. Esteemed privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum, in collaboration with computer scientists, conducted an empirical study in 2012, shedding light on the concept of ‘practical obscurity’ within public court records.63 Although the study did not specifically focus on live court trial broadcasts, it comprehensively analysed information disclosure within court records, rendering its findings highly pertinent.64 Their research primarily explored the impactions of transitioning from locally accessible paper court records to online access. They concluded that significant cost disparities exist in retrieving different types of personal information about a data subject through online versus local access, thereby shaping information flow dynamics.65

Advancements in modern technology have led to a significant shift in court recordkeeping, transitioning from paper-based formats to electronic versions. This transition has effectively dismantled many of the temporal and spatial barriers that previously hindered access to legal information.66 As previously discussed, the widespread adoption of online court video streaming in China directly correlates with the erosion of ‘practical obscurity’ resulting from digitization. Consider a time when live broadcasts of court trials were not yet commonplace. In such a scenario, ordinary citizens seeking to observe a public court proceeding would encounter a series of practical challenges. These challenges might include verifying trial schedules and locations, navigating travel to reach the courtroom (which could be more time-consuming for inter-regional travel), and undergoing security checks upon entry. Additionally, attendees would be expected to maintain proper court decorum, refraining from disruptive behaviour, unnecessary movement, and even early departure before the trial concludes. Practical considerations often dissuade ordinary citizens from attending court proceedings that do not directly pertain to their personal interests. These practical challenges contribute to the perceived ‘costliness’ of personal information gathering. Consequently, commercial entities face substantial hurdles when attempting to amass personal data on a large scale and transform it into valuable data commodities using this method.

However, the advent of CCTO has effectively dismantled barriers, allowing commercial entities to systematically collect personal information from live court trial broadcasts on a large scale. Through the CCTO platform, viewers gain access to a comprehensive 5-day trial schedule in advance, allowing them to subscribe to specific trials of interest. Subscribers receive timely reminders as live broadcasts are about to commence. In the event that viewers miss a live broadcast, they can retrieve recorded sessions from the CCTO’s case archives. Within the CCTO interface, users receive search suggestions as they input queries—prompting them to enter relevant details such as case names, case numbers, or presiding judge’s names. This streamlined approach facilitates the rapid identification of specific court trials. Our empirical testing demonstrates that the advanced search functionality within the CCTO allows users to further refine search results by entering a litigant’s name in the ‘Lawsuit Participants’ field. Moreover, if users possess knowledge about the litigants’ dispute, the case’s nature, or even the approximate trial date, they can input this information into fields such as ‘Cause of Action’, ‘Case Type’, and ‘Trial Date’ to enhance result precision. Remarkably, even individuals without a formal computer science background can adeptly identify and access live-streamed trials through the CCTO. Those with a computer science background find the process of extracting personal information from increasingly digitized court trial broadcasts even more seamless.

Conclusion

Despite the commendable pursuit of judicial openness, live broadcasting of court trials faces distinct challenges related to safeguarding personal information. The ongoing evolution of judicial informatization has precipitated profound shifts in the conduct of court proceedings. This transformation, driven by technological advancements such as integrated digital systems and online platforms, has significantly reshaped the landscape of courtroom practices. At present, the live broadcasting of court trials via platforms like the CCTO plays a pivotal role in ensuring transparency within the judicial system. By harnessing the power of the Internet for broadcasting, these proceedings have effectively broadened the audience for transparent litigation cases, thereby enhancing public access to legal information and encouraging civic participation. However, the widespread dissemination of court proceeding broadcasts and subsequent replays on the CCTO inadvertently exposes substantial personal information of litigants and non-parties, creating notable security vulnerabilities. It has important implications for rethinking the aggregated effects of personal information disclosed by live broadcasts.

The examination of current legal frameworks underscores the inadequacies in effectively safeguarding personal information rights during live court trial broadcasts. These disparities significantly magnify the limitations inherent in existing legal provisions. The immediacy, scope, and accessibility of personal information disclosure during live broadcasts continually erode the efficacy of conventional legal protections. Furthermore, the nature of courts as information processors diverges markedly from that of commercial entities and administrative organs, necessitating nuanced regulatory approaches. These approaches must recognize the unique role of courts as adjudicatory organs and consider the distinct information-processing context of live court trial broadcasts. We propose the following points for consideration.

First, it is essential to recognize live broadcasting of court trials as a unique context requiring specific measures for personal information protection. This practice aligns with the constitutional principle of open trials, with the court serving as the information processor. We must acknowledge the multifaceted nature of personal information rights and the immediate, unpredictable, and large-scale information disclosure that occurs during live broadcasts. Improper processing of personal information can have severe consequences, leading to irreparable harm to an individual’s emotions, reputation, and property. It is crucial to provide regular training to court staff regarding their authority in processing personal information, reinforcing their awareness of personal information protection during live broadcasts. We propose extending the responsibility for safeguarding these rights beyond judges to include all participants, such as court technicians and litigants.

Secondly, continuous optimization of institutional regulations governing personal information processing by adjudicatory organs remains vital. This optimization aims to ensure that courts process personal information during live trial broadcasts in a transparent and traceable manner. To achieve this, courts should establish precise mechanisms for live broadcast screening, reducing judges’ discretion and mitigating the impact of the live broadcasting evaluation system on personal information protection through substantive and procedural provisions.

Thirdly, personal information protection technology needs to assume a more prominent role in live court trial broadcasts. Specifically, attention should be focused on information security risks arising from web crawler technology on the CCTO platform. Data enabling individual identification, including personal appearance and identity characteristics, should be safeguarded through automatic data encryption, mosaic techniques, or simple camera angle adjustments. AI technologies should be integrated to aid personal information protection during live broadcasts. To prevent inadvertent disclosure of sensitive personal information, court hearings should incorporate a deliberate live broadcast delay. Additionally, we recommend defining storage periods for court trial videos based on specific causes of action.

Fourthly, enhancing remedial mechanisms for personal information protection is paramount to upholding the rights and interests of data subjects. Courts must provide comprehensive information to litigants regarding the purpose, method, scope, risks, and other relevant aspects of live court trial broadcasts, securing their informed consent. Courts must assume legal responsibility for the lawfulness of court hearing disclosure and information processing, and they shall be liable for compensation due to intentional or gross negligence causing harm to personal information rights and interests. Simultaneously, the court should establish convenient channels for rights holders to assert their rights and seek compensation via the CCTO platform. Courts’ personal information processing activities during live court trial broadcasts should also be included in the supervision framework from higher courts and procuratorates.

Footnotes

1

We use the wording of ‘personal information’ throughout the article, which is largely synonymous with ‘personal data’ in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Also, there is ongoing discussion on the connotation of personal information (data) as well as various theories to identify personal information. See Benjamin Wong, ‘Delimiting the Concept of Personal Data after the GDPR’ (2019) 39 Legal Studies 517; Michèle Finck and Frank Pallas, ‘They Who Must Not Be Identified—Distinguishing Personal from Non-Personal Data under the GDPR’ (2020) 10 International Data Privacy Law 11. In this article, we use the definition of the Personal Information Protection Law, meaning that ‘all kinds of information related to identified or identifiable natural persons that are electronically or otherwise recorded, excluding information that has been anonymized.’

2

Weimin Zuo, ‘Reflecting on Courtroom Live Broadcasts: From the Perspective of Judicial Transparency’ (2020) 304 Political Science and Law 91 (in Chinese).

3

Nadezhda Purtova, ‘The Illusion of Personal Data as No One’s Property’ (2015) 7 Law, Innovation and Technology 83.

4

Peiru Cai and Li Chen, ‘Demystifying Data Law in China: A Unified Regime of Tomorrow’ (2022) 12 International Data Privacy Law 75.

5

There are theoretical debates in Chinese academia regarding rights-based approach to protecting personal information-related rights and interests. Notably, there are two major ones, namely right to personal information and right to the protection of personal information. A further distinction between these two is beyond the scope of this article.

6

One of the major critiques of the PIPL by scholars is that PIPL is designed to primarily regulate data-processing activities by private entities rather than state organs. See Xixin Wang, ‘An Analytical Framework for the Legitimacy of Personal Information Processing by Administrative Agencies’ (2022) 182 Journal of Comparative Law 92 (in Chinese).

7

Sarah Moore, Alex Clayton and Hector Murphy, ‘Seeing Justice Done: Courtroom Filming and the Deceptions of Transparency’ (2021) 17 Crime, Media, Culture 127; Jian Xu and Cong Liu, ‘How Does Courtroom Broadcasting Influence Public Confidence in Justice? The Mediation Effect of Vicarious Interpersonal Treatment’ (2020) 11 Frontiers in Psychology 1766; Daniel Stepniak, Audio-Visual Coverage of Courts: A Comparative Analysis (1st edn, CUP 2008); Hua Fan and Francis Lap Fung Lee, ‘Judicial Visibility under Responsive Authoritarianism: A Study of the Live Broadcasting of Court Trials in China’ (2019) 41 Media, Culture & Society 1088.

8

Gray W Wilson, ‘Right of Access to Broadcasting: The Supreme Court Takes a Dim View Comments’ (1973) 62 Georgetown Law Journal 355.

9

Mitchell T Galloway, ‘The States Have Spoken: Allow Expanded Media Coverage of the Federal Courts’ (2019) 21 Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law 777.

10

Nancy S Marder, ‘The Conundrum of Cameras in the Courtroom’ (2012) 44 Arizona State Law Journal 1489, 1495; Yingmao Tang, Zhuang Liu and Kangyun Bao, ‘Is Trial Fairness Affected in Live Broadcast? Preliminary Evidence from a Court in China’ (2022) 22 China Review 107.

11

Galloway (n 9); Shelly Rosenfeld, ‘Will Cameras in the Courtroom Lead to More Law and Order? A Case for Broadcast Access to Judicial Proceedings’ (2010) 6 American University Criminal Law Brief 12.

12

Katherine Biber, ‘Dignity in the Digital Age: Broadcasting the Oscar Pistorius Trial’ (2019) 15 Crime, Media, Culture 401.

13

Zixiao Yang, ‘The Limits of “Openness for Justice” in Live Broadcasts of Court Hearing: Analyzing the Boundaries of the Application of Panopticism’ (2024) 203 The Jurist 41 (in Chinese).

14

Marder (n 10) 1511–26.

15

Moore, Clayton and Murphy (n 7).

16

Hedieh Nasheri, Crime and Justice in the Age of Court TV (LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC 2002).

17

Noam Tirosh, ‘Reconsidering the “Right to Be Forgotten” – Memory Rights and the Right to Memory in the New Media Era’ (2017) 39 Media, Culture & Society 644.

18

Anna K Bernzen, ‘The Court and the Camera: Should Privacy Be a Concern in Court Reporting?’ (2018) 10 Journal of Media Law 37.

19

It is imperative to discern the inherent differences between live court trial broadcasting and online litigation. Online litigation prioritizes convenience and flexibility for litigants during legal proceedings. In contrast, live broadcasting primarily fulfils objectives of judicial openness, public access, and education. Although online litigation occasionally integrates features from live broadcasts, not all live broadcasts are directly linked to online litigation. For online litigation, see Liyuan Wang, ‘Application of Information Technology in Judicial Field: The Development Model of Online Litigation in China’ (2024) 52 Computer Law & Security Review 105936.

20

Bernzen (n 18); William J Arendt, ‘Televised Trials in Illinois: Should It Be Viewed as a Privacy Question’ (1984) 18 John Marshall Law Review 793.

21

There have been numerous studies dedicated to the relationship between privacy and personal information. One of the most notable differences between them is that personal information contains multiple legal interests such as personality and property, and the realization of its value lies in circulation rather than the absolute control of the data (information) subject. See Hanhua Zhou, ‘Parallel or Overlap: Relationships between Personal Information Protection and Privacy Protection’ (2021) 33 Peking University Law Journal 1167 (in Chinese); Zhilong Guo, Jie Hao and Lewis Kennedy, ‘Protection Path of Personal Data and Privacy in China: Moving from Monism to Dualism in Civil Law and Then in Criminal Law’ (2024) 52 Computer Law & Security Review 105928.

22

Due to the article’s scope, we will not specifically delve into personal information protection during live broadcasts of virtual trials. Yet, it should be noted that personal information protection faces distinct difficulties in such contexts. For virtual trials, see Susan A Bandes and Neal Feigenson, ‘Virtual Trials: Necessity, Invention, and the Evolution of the Courtroom’ (2020) 68 Buffalo Law Review 1275; Meredith Rossner and David Tait, ‘Presence and Participation in a Virtual Court’ (2023) 23 Criminology & Criminal Justice 135.

23

The video materials also include court trial replays on the CCTO platform.

24

To avoid further public exposure of the personal information of relevant individuals, all screenshots of live video streaming in this article have been processed using mosaic techniques with Photoshop software.

25

We recruited judge participants through our personal connections and snowballing.

26

See Qingxiu Bu, ‘“Human Flesh Search” in China: The Double-Edged Sword’ (2013) 3 International Data Privacy Law 181.

27

Conversely, some judges in our study demonstrated awareness of risks associated with inadequate personal information protection during live broadcasts and even proactively implemented necessary safeguards on their own.

28

Anna Veronica Banchik, ‘Too Dangerous to Disclose? FOIA, Courtroom “Visual Theory,” and the Legal Battle Over Detainee Abuse Photographs’ (2018) 43 Law & Social Inquiry 1164.

29

When scheduling interviews with the judges, we only mentioned that the interview topic was ‘live court trial broadcasts.’ We aimed to analyse how judges perceive personal information by examining their responses to other questions related to personal information, rather than asking for a direct definition. This interview design was intentional—analysing how judges use ‘personal information’ in conversations, without directly asking judges to define ‘personal information,’ is more conducive to exploring their genuine understanding of the concept.

30

Salome Viljoen, ‘A Relational Theory of Data Governance’ (2021) 131 Yale Law Journal 573.

31

Similar incentives to encourage live broadcasting are widespread across the country. See Henan High People’s Court, ‘Measures for the Implementation of Courtroom Video Live Streaming (Trial)’ <https://splcgk.court.gov.cn/gzfwww/gkzn/gkznDetails?id=ff8080816054b675016071a4d79b143f> accessed 19 September 2023; The People’s Court of Guangshan County, ‘Notice on Strengthening the Live Broadcast and Online Publishments of Court Judgements’ < https://hngsfy.hncourt.gov.cn/public/detail.php?id=1463> accessed 20 November 2023.

32

Chao Ma, Xiaohong Yu and Haibo He, ‘Big Data Analysis: Report on the Online Publicization of Chinese Judicial Judgements’ (2016) 12 China Law Review 195 (in Chinese).

33

Shuo Li and Zhenjie Guo, ‘Personal Information Protection in Court Trial Live Broadcast under the Background of Big Data’ (2022) 38 Tianjin Legal Science 14 (in Chinese).

34

As of 20 November 2023, there are over 6.5 million live stream videos shorter than 10 min stored on the CCTO.

35

China Court Trial Online, ‘Cao X vs. Appellant Wuhan Yuxing Tianxia Culture Media Co., Ltd Contract Dispute’ <http://tingshen.court.gov.cn/live/32440498> accessed 20 November 2023.

36

The scope of the SPC’s jurisdiction is stipulated by the Constitution, and the Organization Law of the People’s Courts.

37

Kun Lin and Kun Dong, ‘On the Governance Practices, Fundamental Concepts, and Institutional Optimization of “Internet Plus” Courtroom Openness’ (2021) 477 Journal of Law Application 162 (in Chinese).

38

Art 137 of the Civil Procedure Law.

39

The notification only addresses the online publication of judgments.

40

This observation aligns with the findings of Li and Guo’s study. They conducted random visits, phone calls, and surveys of 100 judges in a specific city, revealing that judges usually notify the parties separately about the live broadcast of specific cases, often with relatively short advance notice, and sometimes even during the actual court proceedings. Li and Guo (n 33).

41

Tang, Liu and Bao (n 10).

42

Some interviewed prosecutors mentioned that even the prosecuting authority may not necessarily be notified in advance whether the public prosecution cases they are involved in will be broadcast live.

43

Li and Guo (n 33).

44

The judge’s remarks also provide insights into why there have been fewer than 700 live broadcasts of administrative cases.

45

Art 130 of the Constitution.

46

Wang (n 6).

47

Art 11 of the Court Rules 2016 and art 2 of the Provisions 2010 alike provide that the people’s courts may make live broadcasts of trials of great public concerns, great social impacts, and great significance in legal publicity and education.

48

The Supreme People’s Court, ‘Reply to the Question on Addressing the Issue of Hiding Personal Information in Judgement Documents’ < https://www.court.gov.cn/zixun/xiangqing/6950.html> accessed 9 November 2023.

49

Marder (n 10).

50

Authors’ own translation.

51

Benjamin L Liebman and others, ‘Mass Digitization of Chinese Court Decisions: How to Use Text as Data in the Field of Chinese Law’ (2020) 8 Journal of Law and Courts 177.

52

Björn Ahl and Daniel Sprick, ‘Towards Judicial Transparency in China: The New Public Access Database for Court Decisions’ (2018) 32 China Information 3.

53

Liming Wang, ‘Legal Protection of Personal Information: Centered on the Line between Personal Information and Privacy’ (2013) 35 Modern Law Science 62.

54

Daniel J Solove, ‘Access and Aggregation: Public Records, Privacy and the Constitution’ (2002) 86 Minnesota Law Review 1137, 1185.

55

The live-broadcast court trials are automatically saved on the CCTO and can be watched afterwards.

56

Art 13 of the PIPL stipulates that a personal information processor may process personal information that has been disclosed by the individuals themselves or other personal information that has been legally disclosed within a reasonable scope in accordance with the PIPL.

57

Neil M Richards and Jonathan H King, ‘Big Data Ethics’ (2014) 49 Wake Forest Law Review 393, 405.

58

Youhua Liu and Lei Zhu, ‘The Risks and Prevention of Online Live Broadcast of Court Trial in the Big Data Era’ (2020) 41 Law Science Magazine 18 (in Chinese).

59

David S Ardia, ‘Privacy and Court Records: Online Access and the Loss of Practical Obscurity’ (2017) 2017 University of Illinois Law Review 1385.

60

Woodrow Hartzog and Frederic D Stutzman, ‘The Case for Online Obscurity’ (2010) 101 California Law Review 1.

61

Peter A Winn, ‘Online Court Records: Balancing Judicial Accountability and Privacy in an Age of Electronic Information’ (2004) 79 Washington Law Review 307.

62

Ardia (n 59).

63

Amanda Conley and others, ‘Sustaining Privacy and Open Justice in the Transition to Online Court Records: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry’ (2012) 71 Maryland Law Review 772.

64

Live broadcasts of court trials as well as their video replays on the CCTO can be read as publicly accessible court records.

65

Conley and others (n 63) 814.

66

Robert D Nicholson, ‘The Paperless Court? Technology and the Courts in the Region.’ (2002) 12 Journal of Judicial Administration 63.

Supplementary data

Supplementary data are available at International Data Privacy Law online.

Conflict of Interest

None declared.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks for the helpful comments of anonymous reviewers and the editor. We are grateful to the participants in the study, as well as the feedback from Zhou Wei, Li Cheng, and Ren Xirong.

This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic-oup-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/pages/standard-publication-reuse-rights)

Supplementary data