Chinese fear online mobs
By Owen Fletcher
BEIJING - Wang Fei is widely detested in China. When Wang's wife discovered he was having an affair last year, she recorded her anguish in a journal for two months before leaping from the terrace of their 24th-floor apartment in Beijing at the end of last year. A friend of hers then had her online journal posted in an Internet forum, which blamed her death on her husband's extra-marital affair.
Harsh criticism of Wang and sympathy for his wife poured onto message boards. Infuriated Internet users sought revenge through "human flesh search engines" - websites that can turn up the personal information of people targeted online for moral excoriation.
"Human flesh search" is a literal translation from the Chinese term renrou sousuo, which probably started in 2001, when an entertainment website asked viewers to help track down information about songs, films and others. It created a "human flesh search engine" for viewers to paste their information.
This is a cyber relay in the search for information. Someone provides the first bit of information, the second could add a bit more and so on until the whole picture is complete. But, when information in demand on a human flesh search engine concerns a person or persons, there may be problems concerning violations of privacy.
For example, in April after a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States showed her support for pro-Tibet independence demonstrations, Chinese bloggers started a human flesh search with pictures of her at the demonstration to find out who she was. In the end, not only her name, age, and which part of China she came from was publicized, but also the names of her parents and where they lived.
In Wang Fei's case, within days after the wife's "death blog" was posted, his name, address, phone and national identification numbers soon appeared online alongside pictures of him. Internet users began harassing Wang over the phone. They also called his company, which quickly fired Wang and his lover. Wang's parents found vicious accusations of murder written on their door.
Wang, who is 28 and has yet to find another job, sued two major Internet portals and an individual in March for defamation and for violating his privacy through online postings. A Beijing court has accepted the case - the first anti-"human flesh search" lawsuit in the country.
The defense has argued that sharing Wang's information was legal because it was already publicly accessible, and that the public had the freedom to criticize his immoral behavior. A verdict is expected this month from the trial's three judges.
The outcome of Wang's case could shift China's course as the government considers how to handle new demands for privacy rights. But even with pressure coming from the public, scholars and liberal-leaning officials, it is unclear how strongly the government will move to regulate the leaking and abuse of personal information.
Issues concerning the right to privacy and the impact of new technologies have been addressed by countries with more advanced systems. For example, in the United Kingdom, victims of online defamation can seek to have that Internet service providers remove offending posts or risk being held liable as publishers. In the United States, subpoenas can be sought to force the disclosure of online identities. Privacy is regulated in general in the US by the Privacy Act of 1974, and various state laws.
But talk of privacy rights is new in China. Like imperial dynasties before it, the communist government keeps personal records on every citizen. Its monitoring was most invasive under Mao Zedong, when the state moved citizens into communes and controlled all jobs, housing and services through the household registration (hukou) system. Authorities even collected data on women's menstrual cycles to enforce birth control policies.
Society has transformed since then. Economic reforms begun 30 years ago have brought financial independence for citizens and an end to multi-generational living arrangements. Such changes in family structure can produce different expectations of privacy, said Bonnie McDougall, professor emeritus of Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. "The sense of privacy in a small family can be the source of new and perhaps even stronger conflict than would occur in a larger family," she said.
Rising wealth and debate on rights in general has also contributed to privacy demands in the legal realm. "The legal protection of private property is of course extending people's sense of what should be regarded as private in law," McDougall said.
Using human flesh searches for cyber manhunts like the one that targeted Wang Fei became well known in 2006, when a Chinese woman filmed herself gouging out a kitten's eyes and crushing its head with high heels. After she posted the video online, angry Internet users determined the location of its background as a county in the northern Heilongjiang province. Forum members soon dug up details on the woman's life, including her workplace and her marital status. Her company suspended her.
The search engines booted up again this April when Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, tried to mediate between student groups protesting for and against Tibet independence. Wang began receiving death threats from Chinese Internet users, and her parents went into hiding after a bucket of feces was upturned at their door in Qingdao.
The rise of cyber manhunts has added urgency to concerns about information privacy in China. An online survey conducted by China Youth Daily in June found that 20% of respondents feared being targeted by the online mob. Eighty percent supported stronger regulation of cyber manhunts.
Many of China's more than 600 million mobile phone users have also called for protection of their personal information. It is common for businesses in all sectors to sell clients' contact numbers, fueling a prolific industry in advertisement via text messages. Mobile users have reported receiving advertisements for remodeling services immediately after buying an apartment, or for medical products after visiting the hospital.
Laws protecting privacy are in the works. The Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress last month released proposed amendments to the Criminal Law. One would prohibit employees in government and telecom industries from leaking individuals' information, punishable by up to three years in jail.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "The draft's author, Zhu Zhigang, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, has been critical of human flesh search engines."
The State Council, China's cabinet, is also considering a draft personal information protection law that would ban companies and organizations from sharing personal information without consent.
These are significant steps. Privacy is currently mentioned in various Chinese statutes but lacks broad protection or a specific definition. The legal moves in progress would be among the first to explicitly ban certain behavior in privacy cases, making prosecution easier. The personal information law would provide the most universal protection of privacy in Chinese law so far.
Legal precedents for the regulation of cyber manhunts may come mainly from Wang Fei's case. Tightening restrictions on individuals who leak others' information could be insufficient, said Anne Cheung, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
"I hope the judgment will touch upon Internet service providers' liability. The most effective way is to have a notice and take down system - deletion of personal data or information once a complaint is filed with the Internet service provider," Cheung wrote in an e-mail message.
No matter the result, privacy may only become a bigger issue in China as the government expands its monitoring of citizens in public, on the phone and online. Major cities have begun blanketing their streets and shopping malls with networked surveillance cameras. Beijing alone has more than 260,000 cameras, many with advanced night vision and zoom functions. Text messages and e-mail are monitored by systems that flag the use of politically sensitive keywords, according to rights groups.
Several Chinese social networking sites and the auction site Taobao.com reignited the debate about Internet privacy last week by announcing that they would block user profiles gleaned from Chinese search portal Baidu. Although the websites cited privacy concerns, observers note that the move does not comprehensively protect user information from public searches.
Owen Fletcher is a freelance journalist from the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org