China goes after click farms, fake online sales

BEIJING • China enacted sweeping changes to a business competition law to address fraud in the e-commerce industry, which is plagued by malfeasance from fake positive reviews to merchants goosing sales numbers.

The National People's Congress (NPC) adopted revisions on Saturday to the Anti-Unfair Competition Law intended to address online retailers, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The changes take effect on Jan 1 but were announced days before Alibaba Group Holding's Nov 11 Singles' Day bargain extravaganza.

The Chinese law initially took effect in 1993 to protect consumers and businesses from unfair market practices. None of China's biggest online companies - such as Alibaba and Tencent - even existed then. As e-commerce developed, attendant problems grew with it.

These latest revisions stipulate that operators should not deceive consumers by faking sales or employing "click farms" to rack up positive product reviews - increasingly common practices that have drawn the ire of buyers. And the rules cover the entire breadth of Internet commerce, from online goods and movie ticketing to food delivery.

"You now cannot delete bad comments or employ people to leave good comments," said Ms Christine Yiu, an intellectual property law expert and partner at Shanghai-based Bird & Bird. "It's a welcome change that echoes with the whole direction that China's trying to move in, by strengthening old protections and discouraging infringement in the market."

Another example of such fraud in China is e-commerce sites buying up movie tickets to artificially boost a film's box-office rankings and to drum up popularity, Ms Yiu said.

The new legislation states that businesses should be self-policing. Among the punitive measures outlined, online merchants that fake sales or feedback can be fined up to two million yuan (S$411,000) or lose their business licence, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported yesterday.

"The revision will better address new problems emerging in the market and protect the rights and interests of both business operators and consumers," NPC Standing Committee official Yang Heqing said, according to Xinhua.

The practice of "brushing" - faking sales to boost rankings or draw more traffic to a website - has been a problem for years. Much of the criticism focused on Alibaba, the market leader, which has a complicated history with brushing operators and has been trying to stamp out such practices.

With a billion listings on Alibaba's Taobao website alone, standing out is critical for online sellers. The art of brushing comes down to tricking a site into believing a purchase has been made and then disguising the movement of money that makes it happen. The fake buyer is then paid by the brushing company.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline 'China goes after click farms, fake online sales'. Print Edition | Subscribe