On December 18, Beijing Chaoyang District Court fined two websites and an Internet user for posting personal and intimate details about an unfaithful husband Wang Fei, his mistress, and his spurned wife who had committed suicide.
On the same day, the court sent judicial recommendations to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Internet monitoring issues raised by this "cyber-violence" case.
'Death blog' sparks the first case of 'cyber-violence'
On December 29, 2007, a Beijing woman, Jiang Yan, killed herself by jumping off the 24th floor of a building. In early 2008, her personal diary was posted on the Internet, revealing the sorrow and despair of her final days, caused by the extra-marital affair of her husband Wang Fei.
The "death blog" stirred the Internet world and Wang Fei was pursued by a "human flesh search engine" – a term used to describe Internet users who hunt down otherwise-anonymous Chinese citizens in cases ranging from love triangles to political scandals and cold-case murders.
Personal information about Wang Fei and his mistress, including their addresses and workplaces, were exposed on the Internet. In the period that followed verbal abuse on the Internet escalated into violence in the real world. Outraged "netizens" besieged Wang's parents' apartment with protests, threats and obscenities.
On March 18, 2008, Wang Fei began a legal case against Zhang Leyi, a friend of his dead wife, daqi.com and Tianya.com, for violation of his privacy and destruction of his reputation, claiming damages of 75,000 yuan for loss of earnings, 60,000 yuan for moral damage, and 2,050 yuan in legal costs.
Wang accused Zhang Leyi of creating a website called "The migratory bird that flies north" and posting several articles on it concerning his extra-marital affair. He accused daqi.com of creating a discussion page devoted to the case, and tianya.com of publishing an article called "Hello everyone, I am Jiang Yan's sister." Wang said the defendants had illegally exposed his personal information on the internet, damaged his life and reputation and caused him to lose his job.
The court ruled that the behavior of Zhang Leyi and daqi.com had violated Wang Fei's privacy and reputation. The two defendants were ordered to delete all relevant articles and photos, publish an apology on their home page, and pay a total of 8000 yuan in compensation.
The third defendant in the case, popular Chinese website tianya.com, was not fined. The ruling pointed out that the site had tried to control the online frenzy by removing Wang's personal details from its site.
Court recommendations on Internet monitoring
The Chaoyang District Court sent judicial recommendations to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Internet monitoring issues raised by this case, advising the improvement of supervision over websites, and better guidance of Internet development.
The court found that reviews of websites were post-facto and held in response to complaints after infringements had occurred. Effective technical measures were needed to monitor the behavior of net users and prevent infringements.
For example, in this case, the website "The Migratory Bird that flies north", registered by the defendant Zhang Leyi on January 11, 2008, immediately started to offer information services after registration. But actually, the registration of the website was not approved until April 23, 2008. In other words, the website existed unsupervised for 103 days.
According to this court's recommendation letter, in recent years, a number of new phenomena had appeared in the cyber world. If they are not managed and guided in a timely manner, they have the potential to create damaging consequences. For example, if "human flesh searches" are abused, the public will be misled and people's legitimate rights and interests will be violated.
In an interview with China Youth Daily, President of Chaoyang court Chen Xiaodong said, "'Human flesh searches have not been completely outlawed. But the court does not support searches that violate the legitimate rights and interests of other citizens."
On the issue of the public's right to know, Chen said, "Freedom of speech should be guaranteed, but we also need to respect and protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens. Some experts have proposed instituting an internet real-name system to resolve the problem. But others think the system isn't feasible given existing conditions in China."
On July 16, more than 50 senior Judges attended a meeting to discuss this cyber-violence case. One judge pointed out that the main difficulty of the case lay in maintaining a balance between freedom of speech and the rights and interests of others. When dealing with the case, courts should be aware that their verdict would impact both the development of the Internet and the protection of people's rights.
Professor Kuang Wenbo from School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University of China, said, "The reality of cyber-violence reflects the fact that the Internet's moral code and China's legal system are lagging behind."
"Facing with cyber-violence, monitoring departments should take the initiative to improve management and use technical measures to ensure Internet security. At the same time, bloggers should treat internet affairs correctly and keep calm and objective," Kuang added.
(China.org.cn by Ma Yujia, December 24, 2008)