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UPDATED: November 2, 2014 NO. 45, NOVEMBER 6, 2014
Regulating the Sharing of Information Online


In cases of everything from finding hit-and-run drivers to pinning down corrupt officials, Chinese Internet users have taken to sharing an image or information online in attempts to ferret out wrongdoers. However, because such search practices, known as "human flesh search," may cause harm to the people in question, guilty or otherwise, the individuals providing the information must take legal accountability. China's Supreme People's Court (SPC) has recently issued a new regulation on cyberspace privacy protection, clarifying how to deal with civil disputes caused by infringements on personal privacy through the Internet.

Many say these changes are both necessary and timely. The irresponsible sharing of individuals' private information on the Internet can lead to unexpected consequences. In extreme instances, there has developed a black market industry, where people post incorrect information and demand payments to delete these online posts. Such practices breach the bottom line of the law.

Yet some argue that stricter restrictions on information-sharing on the Internet damages freedom of speech. Sometimes, by exposing personal information on the Web, the public is able to "out" corrupt officials; thus, the new regulation may work to make such discovery and detection impossible. Excerpts from commentators weighing in on the debate follow:

Privacy protection

Guo Xiaoran (www.people.com.cn): Cyberspace makes it possible for information to spread fast in our society—including rumors. The so-called human flesh search engine, also known as "Internet vigilantism," can easily be taken advantage of by ill-intentioned people. Thus, this practice can be very harmful to individuals and society as a whole.

It is likely that the person who came up with the human flesh search engine scheme did not envision the negative impacts this system of information sharing could have on others. If it is used for nefarious purposes, the consequences are uncontrollable. Searches may be conducted on the Internet, but their impacts happen in real life.

The SPC's new regulation will undoubtedly protect people from privacy infringements and restrict Internet users' capabilities to exact revenge on others by exposing their private information on the Internet. However, the problem now is how to define the human flesh search engine and separate it from other kinds of illegal behavior. Chances are that abuse of this system is intertwined with other illegal practices.

The implementation of a new regulation allows the judicial system to meet various future legal challenges. We must be fully prepared to manage difficulties that arise due to a lack of legal standardization of cyberspace activities.

Yang Guangzhi (www.cqnews.net): It's often said that the human flesh search engine is a double-edged sword. This new regulation has set up a basic framework through which to rein in the bad practices allowed by the system while expanding its positive influence. To expose ordinary people's trifling private issues on the Internet by these means, however, regularly leads to two unfortunate results.

First, the individual's small mistake is amplified across the Internet, inviting ridicule and criticism from others online. This sort of online "ganging up" has thus far been totally uncontrollable. The second result is that the person can be taken advantage of by the threat of having his or her private information plastered everywhere, and thus may fall victim to the demands of blackmailers. In this instance, the human flesh search engine has simply become a tool to commit crimes.

The conflict that exists between the human flesh search engine and citizens' privacy is in essence the conflict between citizens' freedom of speech and the protection of individuals. There should be a process through which to coordinate goals and compromise on checks and balances so as to finally find a legal way to cope with such conflicts.

The human flesh search engine, on the one hand, benefits society through extensive Internet coverage of wrongdoing; on the other hand, this extensive coverage can also create irreversible damage if used improperly. This powerful information tool has long been operating freely without any authoritative or legal supervision. The more power it gains, the more serious issues it creates. Therefore, legal guidelines must be put in place.

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