Saturday, February 7, 2009

Human Flesh Search -- Banned!

On the Chinese Internet, outraged posters have had a technique for a while that is loosely translated as "Human Flesh Search Engine." Basically, they harness the six-degrees-of-separation effect, and ask their friends about things, who ask their friends, who eventually know the information they seek. The information they seek is usually the identity of a person who has made a particularly obnoxious posting.
Eventually, they get the person's information and some extra photos and possibly his address. This is enough to physically find him and lay his comeuppance upon him. Or if not physical revenge, an interview with his mother, where she talks about how he used to wet the bed or some other humiliating tidbit.
Since one popular target of Human Flesh Searches are corrupt government officials (who get their private addresses revealed for harassment's sake), the city of Xuzhou has passed a regulation, to come into force on June 1st of this year, forbidding the human flesh search. It prohibits posting anything deemed to be private, and penalties range from a 1000 yuan fine (~$250?) to prohibition from using a computer at all for six months. The use of the term "human flesh search" is also forbidden
Public reaction has been so far to threaten to human flesh search the city officials, thus revealing their private addresses, to declare human flesh searching to be a human right, and threats to move to elsewhere where it remains legal. As far as New Jersey. (read: America)
This capability has long been noted in Chinese society. Pamphlets in World War II advised American soldiers that extensive social contacts in the country made asking around random people you hired the best means of gathering information. (Although these same pamphlets also suggested avoiding racism and other things that are quite obvious today but weren't in 1941.) However, it's only recently that the Internet has also been available in China, and appreciable results produced from this.
On one hand, I do approve of fighting corruption. On the other hand, this can so easily be abused. People are human-flesh searched for disagreeing with group-think, for being attractive and female, for "embarrassing" China in any fashion (including things that are not controversial in any other country), for general insufferable-ness, or for posting something stupid. And being searched could ruin your life if you are found. Targets have been threatened with vandalism, murder, and torture. (Admittedly, the worse one's internet "crime," the worse the results of being found. The murder and torture threats were mostly against criminal and evil government officials.)
Is the benefit from woman being able to be on the Internet without a thousand skeeves knowing where she lives worth the loss of an important way to encourage honesty in government? For that matter, will the ban do anything other than encourage a new euphemism for the same practices? (Some commenters seemed nonplussed by the threatened penalties.) Can the human flesh search be wielded for the use of good without succumbing to the temptations of evil?

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