Senior judges discuss "human search engine"

As the Internet has gained in influence in China, the “human search engine” and “internet mob” has also made itself increasingly known.  We’ve discussed several such stories here, including the case of Wang Qianyuan.  In the past, some unknown government bureau might have simply issued an edict banning this behavior… but in a hopeful sign of the maturing legal system in China, senior judges are discussing how to deal with a lawsuit related to one such incident.

ESWN provides background on the case of Jiang Yan, and her husband Wang Fei.  Jiang Yan committed suicide in the last few days of 2007, and that’s where the story begins.  The full story of her husband’s affair and cruelty was described on numerous internet sites by Jiang Yan’s sister and friends.  The human search engine and internet mob went into action, harassing Wang Fei and family at work and at home. 

Rather than just disappearing, Wang Fei has filed a lawsuit against three Internet sites and one of Jiang Yan’s friends.  I’m not going to get into the titillating details, but here’s an update from the China Youth Daily on the lawsuit (连接):

This reporter has learned that after the third hearing on the “first human search engine case”, the Beijing Chaoyang District Court has called a conference of senior judges.  54 senior judges have begun heated discussions on the topic.

In this case, white collar worker Jiang Yan jumped from her 24 story home on December 29th of 2007.  Before committing suicide, she wrote a “death blog”, recording her emotional path before reaching that point.  In the blog, she provided her husband’s name, place of work, and other related information.

Based on media reports, Daqi opened up a special section discussion this topic on January 10th (大旗连接).  On the same day, Tianya published an article same day titled “Hello everybody, I am Jiang Yan’s sister”.  On January 11th, Jiang Yan’s classmate Zhang Leyi registered a website named “Migratory Bird Flying North” (ed: matching the name of Jiang Yan’s original blog).  On these three sites, a number of articles revealed Wang Fei, the third party Dong Fang’s real names, as well as Wang Fei’s place of work, place of residency, and also made claims like “Wang Fei refuses to show his face”, “Wang Fei has a new love”, etc, etc.

Some netizens went as far as going to the home of Wang Fei’s parents, painting slogans like “forced the death of a good wife”, “scum”, etc.  Wang Fei later filed suit against Zhang Legi and all three websites.  So, “the human search engine” has entered the legal process for the first time, and has been called “the first human search engine case” (人肉搜索第一案). 

In today’s conference, the presiding judge asked that the senior judges at the conference discuss three key questions:

1) the relationship between revealing an average citizen’s identity, and privacy rights;

2) whether websites have the legal responsibility to monitor inappropriate messages of netizens, and whether they can be held responsible; 

3) the proper limits of moral criticism and protection of privacy.

The judges at the conference exchanged debates on the issue.  The judges explained that the difficulty in this case is balancing the values of freedom of speech, with protecting the rights of citizens.  In processing this case, they should consider the effect of any decision on the healthy development of Internet discussion, as well as the effect it will have on the protection of average citizen rights.  They must also consider both the legal effects as well as social effects.

Based on reports, there have already been three hearings on this case.  In response to the plaintiff’s claims of defamation and violation of privacy, the defendent Zhang Leyi’s lawyer argued that Wang Fei’s name, place of work, and telephone number falls within the scope of information already exchanged within the business world.  Therefore, revealing this information doesn’t equate to a violation of Wang Fei’s right to privacy.  Wang Fei’s extramarital affair led to his wife’s suicide, and this is a violation of social morals.  People have the right to free speech, and criticizing this sort if immoral behavior doesn’t equate to defamation of his character.  Wang Fei’s lawyer has proposed settling the case with the defendents, but all of the defendents have refused.

90 thoughts on “Senior judges discuss "human search engine"

  1. This is an interesting area of legal concern. As more Chinese become aware their rights and responsibilities, legal issues like this will get debated by the profession, government and citizenry.

    In terms of the Human Search Engine, it does have a bullying mentality when it becomes a mob that invades people’s privacy.

    I consider a person’s name, location of city, and occupation to be public information while their workplace, home address, telephone number, and relatives’ information to be private.

  2. In British law, we see much referring back to cases which, whilst not immediately important to society, eventually had great repercussions – the Carbolic Smoke Ball case is one of these. China is not a common law jurisdiction (although Hong Kong is) so it is over optimistic to say that great effect will come from this case – but maybe . . .

  3. It would be interesting to get a lawyer’s take on this, or better yet, a PRC lawyer. If China finds a legal solution to this problem, it would be world-leading. This sort of thing is still grappled with in the west, and certainly our laws have not kept pace with internet developments. It will be interesting to see the resolution of the case in St. Louis, for instance, where a teenage girl was driven to suicide by abuses she received via Facebook instigated by the mother of a schoolmate; that mother is now indicted, but I’m not sure on what. A Canadian was recently convicted in civil court of libel against an Australian, and has to pay a 6 figure judgement. But i think cyberbullying is going to become more and more of a problem the world over.

    This case seems particularly challenging. I agree with Netizen that while some personal information might justifiably be in the public domain, some information should remain private and privileged. The kicker, of course, is that the wife appears to have waived spousal privilege by releasing some of his personal info before taking a flier.

  4. @SK Cheung,

    Good point on the wife (before her death) having already revealed her husband’s private information. That should be a legal consideration, right?

    I think it’s interesting how its the Chinese companies that are essentially fighting on the side of freedom of speech. My feeling is that in the West, the corporate interests are typically fighting the *conservative* side of that fight… against activist groups trying to push the boundary. In the West, corporations tend to filter against potentially “dangerous” activity first, with activists pushing to defend liberal rights.

  5. To Buxi:
    I agree business interests tend to be conservative, whether it be protecting trade secrets or preventing bad press. But the entitlement to information is institutionalized in our society. I think the difficulty arises in finding a balance wrt access to personal information, for which individuals ought to be able to expect some degree of privacy.

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