Hunting for humans

August 28, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

What the heck is going on in China (apart from the Olympics of course)? I’ve been picking up a new term lately, which has several variations – “human flesh search engine”, “human search engine”, “human search”, “human hunting”. All variations are pretty creepy. But basically, it’s about using the Internet to track down people to dish out morality lessons and it seems to be a growing phenomenon in China. It’s leading to mobs of people becoming judge, jury and executioner. And what I think is an increasing atmosphere of criticism – after all, this is the country that thought poor little 7-year old, Yang Peiyi, was not pretty enough to be seen singing at the Opening Ceremony for China’s Olympics.

Let’s look at the case of 20-year old Wang Qianyuan, a Chinese national, who ran into a group of American students brandishing “Save Tibet” slogans at Duke University in the US. Wang, sensible enough to know that if she joined the protest there could be ramifications, simply used blue body paint to scrawl a slogan on the back of a protester.

Then…Wang was seen in a video that did the rounds of the Internet. She was standing between pro-Tibet protesters and Chinese counter-protesters. She was not involved in either side of the protest. Within hours, however, an angry mob had gathered online accusing Wang of being a traitor and calling for her to be punished. One anonymous poster said: “Makes us lose so much face. Shoot her where she stands”.

If you read my post of the other day about how easy it is to find personal information on the internet, you won’t be surprised to learn that personal stuff about Wang was trawled for and found – Wang’s portrait from Qingdao No. 2 Middle School, her national identification number, her parent’s address and phone number back in China. In fact, her parent’s address was published on a Duke University web site. Fellow Chinese national students hassled Wang. Online users targeted her family, leaving a bucket of human excrement lying outside their front door. Someone installed a videocam outside her parent’s home. Her parents fled and they remain in hiding. Wang herself has received sexually explicit emails and online messages discussing her have been filled with hints of violence.

An even more frightening thing happened to Lobsang Gendun, a Tibetan who lives in Salt Lake City, US. He was wrongly accused of attacking Jin Jing, the fencing athlete who carried the Olympic torch while in her wheelchair and clung to it whilst fending off a Tibetan supporter who tried to wrestle it away. An online “mob” posted a Google map of Gendun’s neighbourhood. His home phone number, a photo of his house, details of his employment and his email address were also posted. His phone rings all night long, he has received thousands of angry emails and his boss told him to move into a hotel for awhile until things calm down.

Now, I think all sorts of reasons for these emotional outbursts could be flung at the Chinese: rampant nationalism and resentment after years of being at the mercy of foreign colonizers; the Chinese rise to super stardom and the hope of outshining the US; indoctrination since Tienanmen Square; the Chinese discovering the power of the internet and using it to bully, harrass and victimise whoever does not “toe the party line”.

Or maybe it’s not as simple as painting a picture of Chinese nationalism and international tension. Maybe it’s about people (Chinese or otherwise) who are able to trawl the internet for private data, pounce on it and use it to their advantage. Maybe it’s about the impact and toll on privacy that technology brings and demonstrates just how easy it is for our personal information to be revealed and used against us. Cyberbullying is increasingly an issue as I blogged about in the case of Megan Meier.

I do think the stories I’ve been reading about online Chinese internet lynch mobs and the use of personal data by Chinese to commit crimes or cyber attacks are extremely worrying. In a sense, the case of Wang and Lobsang Gendun possibly demonstrates what can happen when the moral values of a country clash with privacy expectations or balancing the right of freedom of speech with protecting people and their rights. China is struggling to understand what the balance should be between privacy and the boundaries of internet discussion and social networks.

This struggle will no doubt be played out in the lawsuit of Wang Fei (not the popular singer of the same name). Wang Fei’s wife, Jiang Yan, committed suicide in 2007. She blogged about her husband’s alleged extramarital affair and cruelty towards her. Following her death, a website and a blog reposted some of Jiang’s blog posts and Chinese netizens attributed her suicide to the husband’s infidelity. The “human search engine” swung into action, harrassing Wang Fei and allegedly threatening his life and causing him to lose his job. You can read about it here. This lawsuit is the first Chinese case of reputation rights and privacy on the internet as far as I know.

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Entry filed under: China, Privacy. Tags: , , .

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