China clamps down on doxing, limiting 'human flesh search engine'

Human flesh search engines had been used to expose corruption, but also to attack ordinary citizens

China is cracking down on its own form of doxing, by making it a prosecutable crime for Internet users to publish the addresses and private activities of anyone without their permission, according to a new legal interpretation that goes into effect on Friday.

The regulations from the country's Supreme People's Court essentially outlaw what's been known in China as the "human flesh search engine", an activity that involves Internet users banding together to expose an individual to public humiliation.

Over the years, the human flesh searches have put a spotlight on government corruption and other perceived injustices, but they've also drawn criticism for inciting a lynch mob behavior among angry Internet users.

The new regulations, however, state that local courts will now support plaintiffs who have suffered damages from having their personal information published on the Internet. This includes their medical history, criminal records, home addresses and any other private activities posted online. Exceptions will be made if the information had already been legally made public, or if it was done to "promote social and public benefits," the supreme court said without elaborating.

"In the Internet age, the protection of personal information, especially electronic information, is facing more challenges," the supreme court said in a statement on Thursday. "The collection of personal information is practically happening everywhere."

In China, human flesh search engines have been used "in some pretty vile ways", said Jeremy Goldkorn, the director of Beijing-based research firm Danwei, who equated it to cyber bullying. In 2008, the searches made an advertising executive into one of China's most hated husbands after he was exposed following his wife's suicide over an extramarital affair.

In the same year, a Chinese university student was targeted for trying to mediate a dialogue between pro-Tibet and pro-China groups at her campus. She was later branded a traitor to China, with the directions to her parent's apartment published online.

But the human flesh searches have also shed a light on government corruption and incompetence, with Internet users outing officials for flaunting their wealth, Goldkorn said. "It's definitely a double-edged sword," he added.

The Internet has often been a key outlet for the Chinese to express their opinions publicly, but the new legal rules come at a time when the government is tightening its hold on Internet content, and raising the level of online censorship to unprecedented levels.

Facebook and Twitter have long been blocked, but in late May the country cut access to all Google services, in a possible attempt to stifle mention of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. In recent years, the authorities have also stepped up the censorship of local social media sites, going as far to arrest Internet users for allegedly starting rumors on controversial topics.

Goldkorn said the new regulations represent just another set of tools China will use to control the Internet. "There's no question that in effect these new regulations are meant to punish online speech," he added. "As such, they may be abused by the authority."

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