CHINA> Special
Letting loose fair game in cyberspace
By Wu Jiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-08-28 08:40

Ever since his extramarital affair was exposed, Beijinger Wang Fei's life has been a living hell.

He does not even know the thousands of people who are making him pay for his deed.

Youngsters in the Xishuangbanna area, Yunnan province, get online in this file photo. Proposals covering Net-related privacy issues have been put forward.  

It all started with the diary Wang's wife, Jiang Yan, left online before leaping to her death from their 24th floor apartment last December.

Jiang wrote of her misery after discovering her husband's adultery two months earlier.

Once word of that got out, the cyber-hunt for her cheating husband began.

Wang, in his 20s, soon found himself on top of a "most-wanted list" on the Internet. Net users sniffed out and placed his photos, addresses and phone numbers on major portals for all to see and abuse.

Expletives were painted on the door of his parents' home, accusing them of killing Wang's wife. Strangers contacted the company where Wang and his lover worked. The company later suspended the couple and they were reportedly forced to resign.

Half a year later, Wang still cannot find work. Most employers turn the man away, said his lawyer, Zhang Yanfeng.

"This has seriously hindered my life," Wang said.

The Beijinger is just one of many suffering the onslaught of the cyber-manhunt. The Internet phenomenon is known in Chinese as "renrou sousuo", or "the search for human flesh".

The cyber-manhunt usually starts with thousands of individuals on the Net self-mobilizing with one goal in mind - digging out the personal information of targeted individuals.

The practice has been in China since the Internet expanded into Chinese homes in the late 1990s. It relies on the input of netizens toward a common information pool, much akin to sites like Wikipedia.

The first cyber-manhunt case in China is generally thought to have taken place in 2001, when a netizen posted a photo of a girl he claimed was his girlfriend online. A number of Net users subsequently found out that the beauty was computer giant Microsoft's model, Chen Ziyao. They publicized her personal information to expose the lie.

Similarly, a video of a woman stabbing a kitten in the eyes with her high heels and crushing the animal's head enraged the online community in February 2006.

The backdrop of the video was analyzed and someone soon located the clip as having been filmed in a county in Heilongjiang province. Less than a week later, netizens helped dig out information about the woman's identity, her employer and the fact that she was divorced. She was later suspended from her job.

In another widely publicized case, the cyber-manhunt led to a fraud being exposed.

When farmer Zhou Zhenglong thought of faking his photo of the critically endangered South China tiger last year, he never expected that netizens would find the old Chinese New Year poster he had used for his fabrications. In late June, the local authorities admitted that the picture was a fake. Zhou was later arrested for fraud.

More worryingly, many are of the view that some cases involving such practices have recently escalated to affect the lives and safety of quarry like Beijinger Wang Fei and family members.

Concerned about the ill effects, some members of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, have put forward proposals to amend the Criminal Law, to prevent cyber-manhunts from infringing upon the rights of the individuals.

The cyber-manhunt "is not a simple moral battle, but a matter that seriously batters the rights of the people", said Zhu Zhigang, a member of the NPC Standing Committee who made the proposal during the committee's ongoing discussion.

The draft amendments to the Criminal Law, scheduled for submission to the NPC Standing Committee this week, stipulates that those who illegally obtain personal information should be subjected to penalties.

If passed, staff with access to personal information, such as those working in government offices, financial, medical and educational institutions, and transport and communications departments, who are found to have sold or leaked the data could face up to three years in jail.

Zhu also explained in his proposal that those involved in the cyber-manhunt have done more harm to individuals than those who sell information for profit.

For legal professionals, the increasing number of such cases should serve as a reminder to the authorities to regulate cyberspace.

Proper regulation can help prevent Net-related violence, said Tsinghua University law professor Li Xu.

A survey by the China Youth Daily this month showed that 79.9 percent of 2,491 netizens polled believed that cyber-manhunts should be regulated, 64.6 percent said it infringes upon people's privacy and 20.1 percent feared that they themselves would become a target. On the other hand, 65.5 percent of those polled agreed it might be a new way to vent anger and to exact revenge.

The poll also showed that 24.8 percent of respondents supported legislation to restrict such searches.

Beijing resident Wang Fei's case continues to fuel privacy debates. In April, he filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the Tianya and Daqi websites for invading his privacy and damaging his reputation.

In April, hundreds of netizens nationwide reportedly flew to the capital to attend the hearing.

"With the case in the public spotlight, privacy should not get in the way of justice. We have to fight together to help the dead," said a netizen, surnamed Zhang, who added that Wang will not be punished by the current laws.

Others disagreed.

"This is online violence," said Chen Jing, a student in Beijing.

"Netizens can blame him, but exposing his personal information is not right. After all, the netizens didn't really know what happened between the couple."

After three court hearings, the case led to discussion on the role that website operators and netizens should play in regulating online information.

The final verdict on Wang's case is expected in September, according to the Chaoyang District Court in Beijing, which is handling the case.

For one netizen, surnamed Zhang, being involved in cyber-manhunting is just his way of "lending a hand" to the disadvantaged who are not "properly protected by the law".

"I believe it gives people like me a sense of being a vigilante," said Zhang.

Others hint that many who attack Wang Fei are his colleagues or even friends, who have access to his personal information.

There have also been reports of a number of websites fanning the online furor to achieve high webpage hits.

Another netizen, with the online name "much to do about nothing", said the victims of such manhunts can sometimes just be target boards for netizens unhappy about life.

"Many people agitated by Wang Fei's case are those who have also suffered from being betrayed by loved ones," the netizen wrote.

Xinhua contributed to the story