China's virtual vigilantes: Civic action or cyber mobs?
Concerned citizens are targeting anyone from accused pedophiles to activists with 'human flesh search engines' that post people's personal information online.
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One man who found himself the quarry of a human flesh search, Wang Fei, is testing the law by bringing China's first suit against websites that he says carried defamatory statements about him.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Wang drew the ire of fellow Internauts after his wife committed suicide last year. Her diary, posted posthumously by her sister, voiced suspicions that Wang had an affair with a colleague. The blogosphere blamed Wang for his wife's death, and turned on him with a vengeance.
"You will fall into the endless darkness and abyss of misery hated by billions" read one post, labeling Wang a "beast" and "scum."
The virtual insults spilled over into real life. Someone painted "blood for blood" on Wang's front door, his lawyer said. He and his relatives were bombarded with furious telephone calls, and he was fired from his job at an advertising agency, along with his alleged mistress.
"Those websites published insulting, defamatory, and untrue information about Wang that damaged his reputation ... and violated his privacy," argues his lawyer, Zhang Yanfeng. "He is suing them for damages, for mental distress, and lost earnings."
The case has already taken nine months and will probably not come to judgment until next spring, says Mr. Zhang, because of "a great many disagreements" among the judges and the expert witnesses.
Among the issues the court must resolve, in the absence of any clear legislation, is whether information such as a cellphone number, an ID card number, or an address can be said to be private. The judges must also consider how far website managers are responsible and legally liable for posts on their sites, and weigh the competing interests of free speech and privacy protection.
A poll published earlier this year in the China Youth Daily found that nearly 80 percent of respondents thought that human-flesh search engines should be regulated, and 65 percent thought they invaded people's privacy.
The dilemma, says Dr. Li, is that "allowing arbitrary speech with no regulation ... violates privacy rights. But if you over-regulate citizens' ability to express themselves, the Internet will lose its very nature and its attraction."
Drawing too heavy a cloak around personal privacy, moreover, would protect abusive officials from the public pillorying they deserve, argues Liu Deliang, head of the Asia-Pacific Institute for Cyberlaw Studies.
"Ordinary people have no enforceable right to supervise government officials' behavior or to control the corruption they see everywhere," he says. "So they use the Internet to do that."
"Human-flesh searches are a neutral technology that can be used for good or ill," says Dr. Liu. "But they must strike a balance between public and private interests."