Tuesday, January 13, 2009
"Human flesh search engines" is a term used to describe sites where internet vigilante mobs track down and publish personal details (name, home address, workplace, phone number, etc.) of those they believe have engaged in some kind of behavior worth punishing. Needless to say, the mob may not always have its facts right, and even if it does, there are privacy issues involved that will be treated differently by different legal systems.
A recent case by one victim against Web sites that had posted personal information about him ended in victory for the plaintiff, even though the allegation prompting the mob - that he had had an extramarital affair, to which the mob attributed his wife's suicide - was true. The court deserves credit for ruling in favor of someone it clearly viewed as a bad person, but what this case really shows is that the Chinese legal system weighs privacy pretty heavily against free speech, even when the speech is truthful. (I should point out that a defendant Web site that published only the story about the affair, but not the plaintiff's personal information, was found not liable.)
I wonder what Lu Xun, who wrote "Diary of a Madman" [English | Chinese] criticizing the metaphorically cannibalistic tendencies of Chinese society, would think of those who see no irony (or shame) in calling these things "human flesh search engines" (人肉搜索引擎).
- Wall Street Journal (on human flesh search engines) (Sept. 12, 2008)
- WSJ.com China Journal (another case) (Sept. 30, 2008)
- Caijing story (Chinese) (on this case) (Dec. 18, 2008)
- Xinhua story (Chinese) (on this case, with a picture of the husband and his lover) (Dec. 18, 2008)
- WSJ.com China Journal (on this case) (Dec. 19, 2008)
- Caijing story (English) (on this case) (Dec. 22, 2008)
- WSJ.com China Journal (on human flesh search engines) (Dec. 29, 2008)