Guns, drugs and breast milk: China's web shoppers exploit vacuum to buy illegal goods

Mainland online vendors find ways around keyword blocks in current legal vacuum, but planned revisions hope to stem illicit e-trade

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 9:25am

From hard drugs to air guns and fresh breast milk, illegal and grey-market goods are easy to find on the mainland's most popular online shopping sites.

The trade flourishes in part because of a legal vacuum - the mainland does not have a law specifically governing e-commerce. Instead, a collection of guidelines loosely govern online transactions. But revisions are under way, according to one legal expert helping with the changes, and should stifle much of the internet's black market.

Shopping websites traditionally relied on technology to flag illegal transactions, but it was a cat-and-mouse game, as shady sellers responded with innovative work-arounds, said Zhang Yanlai, an e-commerce expert at the Brighteous Law Firm based in Hangzhou.

"Ten years ago, you might have got away with bluntly describing your item as 'heroin'. Then the hosting websites learned to screen the word. Then people used 'diacetylmorphine' or 'C21H23NO5', the chemical name. Websites learned that too," Zhang said.

"Now it is difficult to put anything obviously illegal out there, especially on established platforms like Taobao," Zhang said, referring to China's most popular online shopping website, owned by the Alibaba Group.

He said illegal goods sold online fell into three rough categories: prohibited items such as drugs and weapons, unlicensed goods such as tobacco and medicine, and counterfeit goods.

An Alibaba representative in Hong Kong said the company relied on "a number of methods including keyword screening, manual filtering and user reporting" to keep such contraband off their trading website. But a variety of illegal goods appear available on or via the website still.

While hypnotics are a controlled substance on the mainland and a censored keyword on Taobao, a search for "aphrodisiac" returns items with descriptions such as "amnesiatic", "unconscious" and "incapacitated".

Similarly, while "under age, girl, sex" delivers no results, typing in "young, girl, inflated, dolls" on Taobao returns 3,286 items, many attempting to depict girls barely into their teens.

Shrewd sellers can also ask potential buyers to have private conversations outside the website's official messaging system, Aliwangwang.

Many sellers of "cigarette cartons" say on their pages: "Buy if in the know, ask on QQ if not; no Aliwangwang inquiries."

Zhang, whose firm provides free legal consultations to Taobao users, said he had heard from many victims who mistakenly bought items because of euphemisms or vague wording.

"You think you are paying for the cigarettes, but you might be receiving the carton, which is the item described on paper," he said. "In those cases we usually advise the consumers to learn their lessons and stay away from illegal transactions online."

There was no law specifically governing e-commerce on the mainland, he said, although the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) introduced temporary regulations in 2010. Zhang was part of a team helping to revise the guidelines, and he said a version that would carry a force close to law might be ready by next year at the earliest.

Better rules would help sort the responsibilities of the different groups involved in online selling and buying - including the police, SAIC, and the ministries of Commerce and of Industry and Information Technology.

Additional reporting by Bryan Harris