USA Today looks at the phenomenon of so-called human flesh search engines:
Vigilant Internet users spotted news photos of a housing official and posted heated online discussions about his $15,000 Swiss watch and $22-a-pack cigarettes.
Two weeks later, Zhou Juigeng in Nanjing was fired. He is under investigation for an apparent “lavish lifestyle” that exceeds his government salary, according to the state-run China Daily.
The case illustrates how China’s Internet users, operating in groups, can go after people they think have done something wrong by putting information about them online and allowing others to join in the harassment.
In my view, human flesh search is not just a simple act of data gathering – it is also about a dissemination of information to the public, and further research and then further dissemination. In short, it is an act of media investigation. Therefore, human flesh search should follow a ‘public interest principle’ like the media. In other words, it should be respectful of personal privacy while on the other hand should also be critical about the exercise of public authority. There is an inherent common logic in both these aspects. Being critical of the ‘public’ aspect is equivalent to being respectful of the ‘private’ aspect, because the ‘public’ authority is in fact a result of concession by the ‘private’. Any abuse of power by the ‘public’ signifies an infringement on the ‘private’ right.