Bytedance disputes in court that phone contacts are private information

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Lawyers for internet giant Bytedance stated Thursday in a Beijing court that user contact lists taken from phones should not be considered private information.

Beijing Haidian People’s Court began trying a privacy-related case filed by a Jinri Toutiao user against the owner of the app, Bytedance, Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

The user, surnamed Liu, accused the Bytedance app of accessing, uploading, and storing the contacts from his phone without his consent. According to the user, after he switched his SIM card to a second phone with an empty contact list and accessed Jinri Toutiao without logging in, the app recommended contacts from his previous phone as friends. He said that he tried to overwrite the already uploaded contact list with the empty one to no avail.

Bytedance said in its defense that by using Jinri Toutiao and its related services, the user has agreed to its privacy policy, which made it clear that the company would “collect, commercially use, and store” user information, including “name, gender, contact information, and other information that could be used to identify users.” The company also claimed that the user allowed Jinri Toutiao to access his contact list a number of times.

For the recommendations on the user’s second phone, Bytedance said that it was able to do so by recognizing the device number of the user’s phone.

The Beijing-headquartered company further argued in court that the legal definition of privacy refers to information unrelated to an individual’s social life. Because phone numbers are revealed to others, they are not legally considered private.

“Although contact lists contain names and phone numbers, they are information that belong to members of the user’s social network and not him personally,” Bytedance was reported to have said during the trial. “Therefore, contact lists are not the plaintiff’s private information.”

Bytedance has not responded to requests for comment from a TechNode reporter on Friday.

In response to media reports, Bytedance issued a statement on Jinri Toutiao late Thursday evening saying that it doesn’t approve of the phrasing, “contact list is not part of user privacy.” It added that its lawyers’ arguments have to be interpreted within the context of the trial and that excerpts can’t be taken as the company’s stance.

“Jinri Toutiao respects user privacy, and all user data must be authorized by users to be further utilized,” Bytedance said in the statement.

Liu filed the lawsuit in March 2018. In the trial on Thursday, he demanded that Bytedance immediately halt violations to his privacy, apologize, pay RMB 1 as compensation for emotional distress, and cover his attorney’s fees.