China's top legislature on Wednesday started to debate an amendment to the Criminal Law that aims to protect the personal information from being divulged and abused.
If approved by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee at the end of a four-day session in Beijing on Saturday, the article would forbid staff in government offices, financial, medical and educational institutions, transport and communications departments who usually have access to personal information, to sell or leak such information.
Offenders could face a maximum jail term of three years as well as fines, although details of the fines were not given.
For offenses systematically committed by government offices or corporations, those directly responsible would face the same penalties, according to the draft that is undergoing its third round of debate, since it was proposed in August last year.
People who obtain another person's private information illegally would face the same penalties as those who illegally divulged information.
Personal reputation and privacy is protected under the general provisions of the civil law in China. Separate laws and government regulations, such as those concerning the issue of identification cards, and the management of hospitals, ban unauthorized divulgence of private information.
Banks and Internet service providers in China have widely adopted self regulatory rules in this field.
However, leaking private information such as phone numbers and purchase records, often for commercial purposes, has increasingly aroused public anger and concern.
An online survey in August last year showed almost 99 percent of people agreed it was necessary to protect personal information through the law and almost 89 percent said they had had their personal information leaked.
Anonymous messages, phone calls and spam were listed as the most reported means of harassment after personal information was made known to unauthorized agencies and individuals, according to the survey of 2,422 people, conducted by national newspaper China Youth Daily.
According to a 2008 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Science, selling personal information was becoming a booming underground business, with property and car buyers, business people, patients, mobile phone subscribers, and even pregnant women falling prey.
Due to a lack of powerful and clear laws, many victims found it difficult to sue offenders and seek compensation, the study found.
The NPC Standing Committee said in October that it had asked "relevant departments" to study the feasibility of drafting an independent Personal Information Protection Law, but no timetable has been decided.
(Xinhua News Agency February 25, 2009)