China’s cybersecurity watchdog fines academic database 50m yuan over mishandling of personal information
Published: Sep 06, 2023 08:59 PM


The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced on Wednesday the imposition of a fine of 50 million yuan ($6.85 million) and an administrative penalty on China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), the country's largest academic research database, for illegal handling of personal information and other violations, in accordance with the law.

CNKI was also ordered to immediately stop the illegal handling of personal information.

The decision came after a thorough investigation, which began in June 2022, amid the nation's intensified efforts to prevent national data security risks and maintain national security, and protect the public interest.

Experts said that the fine, which was far higher than expected, will serve as a warning to other platforms that handle sensitive user data.

Through the investigation, it was determined that CNKI was primarily operated by three companies - Tongfang Knowledge Network (Beijing) Technology Co, Tongfang Knowledge Network Digital Publishing Technology Co, and China Academic Journals (CD Edition) Electronic Publishing House - according to the CAC on Wednesday.

These companies operated 14 apps that were found to be used for illegal activities such as collecting personal information in violation of necessary principles or without consent, and failing to publicly disclose or clearly state collection and usage rules, the CAC said.

The apps were also not providing an account cancellation function, or not promptly deleting user personal information after account cancellation.

The decision was made on September 1, in accordance with the Cybersecurity Law, the Personal Information Protection Law, the Law on Administrative Penalty, and other laws and regulations, as well as a comprehensive consideration of the nature, consequences and duration of CNKI's illegal processing of personal information, especially the network security review situation, the CAC said.

The CAC pledged to continue to strengthen legal enforcement in network security, data security, and personal information protection, fostering a healthy and regulated business environment while safeguarding national security, data security and citizens' rights.

CNKI is one of the largest Chinese academic information gateway websites. It came under fire in April 2022 when China's top research group, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said it would suspend its use of CNKI due to the service's high subscription fees.

CNKI has more than 1,600 institutional customers overseas in 60 countries and regions, in addition to 32,000 institutional customers from various industries in the Chinese mainland. Core users include top universities, research institutes, government think-tanks, enterprises, hospitals and public libraries.

In response to the administrative penalties announced on Wednesday, CNKI said that it sincerely accepts and will resolutely obey the decision, and pledged to carry out rectification work and strengthen network and data security.
Liu Dingding, an independent technology analyst, who has been closely following the case, told the Global Times on Wednesday that the substantial penalty indicates that CNKI's main issue is not the "having to pay to download my own articles" criticism as some previously thought, but rather more serious violations related to information collection and inadequate protection of sensitive data.

"The official announcement is also very clear, specifying that CNKI was engaged in illegal activity such as collecting personal information in violation of necessary principles, collecting personal information without consent ... hopefully, this fine on CNKI will serve as a warning to other platforms that handle sensitive user data in a law-based manner," Liu said.

"The punishment for CNKI doesn't stop here, and more penalties may follow, especially regarding antitrust regulations," Liu noted.

The State Administration for Market Regulation launched an antitrust investigation into CNKI in May 2022. Subsequently, CNKI was ordered to cease its illegal activities and was fined 5 percent of its 2021 domestic sales revenue, totaling 87.6 million yuan.

Regulators also demanded comprehensive reforms from CNKI, including ending exclusive partnerships, reducing the burden on users, and strengthening internal compliance.

Global Times