Greg Baker/AP

Chinese City Bans “Human Flesh Search Engines”

January 22, 2009 11:02 AM
by Denis Cummings
Posting private information online to ferret out corruption or other bad behavior, known as “cyber hunting,” is now illegal in one Chinese city.

“Cyber Hunting” Ban Passed

Jiangsu Provincial People's Congress Standing Committee on Saturday passed an ordinance banning the act of posting other people’s private information online. It was passed in response to the trend of “human flesh search engines” or “cyber hunting,” a form of vigilantism in which Internet users post damaging personal information about citizens and public officials as a form of punishment.

The law, which applies only to Internet users in the city of Xuzhou, stipulates an Internet user who posts private information can be fined up to 5,000 yuan and possibly be forbidden to go online for up to six months. A Xuzhou official told China Daily that, “Private information, such as age, salary, and relationship status are always targeted during online manhunts.”

The law was passed following a case where public servant Zhou Jiugeng was shown wearing a 100,000-yuan watch and smoking expensive cigarettes, which he could not have afforded on his salary. He was fired after an investigation found that he purchased the items with public funds.

Several other corrupt or immoral public officials have been fired due to pressure by Internet users. Many in China praise cyber hunting for raising the accountability of government officials; 90 percent of users polled on said they oppose the Xuzhou ban.

The details, enforcement and legality of the Xuzhou ban are not yet entirely clear. Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer in Beijing, claims that people cannot be punished for posting true information online. “It's fair for members of the public to monitor officials, but under the new rules if they publish things about them that are not true they will be breaking the law,” he told China Daily.

Background: “Human Flesh Search Engines”

“Human flesh search engines” is a trend in China, which has the world’s largest number of Internet users. The practice, also known as “cyber hunting” or “online manhunts,” was first used in 2001 to show that a blogger’s “girlfriend” was actually a model, according to The Malaysian Insider.

It has grown to be used for more serious cases involving public corruption, unpatriotic remarks, love triangles and deaths. This past summer, a 21-year-old blogger was publicly humiliated by other users after she posted a video complaining about the news coverage of earthquake victims.

Earlier this month, a human flesh search engine victim won a lawsuit in “China's first case against Internet vigilantism,” according to Reuters. Wang Fei, whose wife committed suicide after he had an affair, sued his wife’s friend, Zhang Leyi, for making the affair public by posting excerpts from Mrs. Fei’s private diary on her blog. Mr. Fei, who lost his job after the “death blog” became known, won 5,000 yuan from Leyi and 3,000 yuan from the Internet company that hosted the blog.

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