Human Flesh Search Engine
Many years ago I saw, on a whiteboard, a sentence which never left me. The sentence, written by a programmer friend, said:”Never automate sharp objects”. Although, I do not totally agree with my friend, but there is a lot of wisdom buried in this phrase. The Internet is a sharp tool. The advent of the browser and worldwide web made vast amounts of information within the reach of any literate person who has access to a networked computer. Since then, listening and creating music and video, telephony and videoconferencing, search engines and social networking have made Internet easier and easier to use. We have continuously been sharpening our tool. Browsers and world wide web have become so automated that today’s children at a very young age become adept at handling it. In fact we speak of them as”Internet natives” as opposed to the”Internet migrants” of the previous generation. This automation of the Internet carries the dangers that my friend was referring to.Recently I have run in China into a phenomenon that I have never observed before. It is called the human flesh search engine. This horrible name is actually an artifact of a quick and literal translation from Chinese to English and should not be used to judge this activity. Human flesh search engine is a network based search facility which combines human and computer resources to accomplish a search task. When looking for something on the net we are very often stymied by the fact that there is too much information or that the thing that we are looking for simply does not exist on Internet. Both can often be addressed by augmenting search engines with humans. A friend can help formulate a query to reduce the plenitude of information, a friend of a friend might know where to find a 19th century flower pot that you saw once upon a time and have nothing to rely on but your own vague recollection. If you create this kind of a network of friends on the net then you can accomplish tasks that you would never imagine of trying.A very simple problem that a human flesh search engine can solve is finding a long lost friend. Traditional methods failing, you can engage a network of humans who will help you find the friend. Privacy laws in China are weak and so the result of such a search might be publication of private information such as: phone numbers, place of employment, home address, email address, etc. This fundamentally innocuous activity now turns into a dark and ominous social phenomenon. In February 2006, a video of a woman killing a kitten by stepping on it with her stiletto high-heel shoe was published. This video stirred an outrage and a web wide search to identify her. Someone analyzed the background of the video and identified the bridge as being located in Heilongjiang province. This very quickly led to the identification of Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse. Wang Jue and video’s producer, a cameraman at a provincial TV station, publicly apologized. Wang said she was divorced, depressed and having trouble figuring out what to do with her life.In April 2008 Grace Wang a freshmen at Duke University was caught in the middle of the Tibetan controversy. During a campus demonstration she tried to mediate between pro-Tibetan and the Chinese groups. She and her parents were quickly identified. Detailed directions to her parents’ home in China, accompanied by calls for people to go there and teach “this shameless dog” a lesson resulted in her parents having to go into hiding to avoid retaliation.December 29, 2007 a woman named Jiang Yan, depressed by the infidelity of her husband Wang Fei -an advertising executive at Saatchi-Saatchi, leaped to her death from her 24th floor apartment. Yan’s blog was soon published by her friend Zhang Lei and Wang photos, addresses and phone numbers were placed on major web portals.His parents were not spared either. The doors of his parents’ home were painted with accusations of blaming them for causing Yan’s death. Saatchi-Saatchi suspended Wang and his girlfriend and later they were reportedly forced to resign. Half a year later, Wang still could not find a job. In December 2008 Wang won a suit against the portals that posted his private information and also won a ruling against Zhang Lei. The awards were not big (about $1200 each), but they do represent an important event. Many examples of human flesh search or ‘netizens’ abound on Chinese Internet. Some identify corrupt officials, some castigate asocial behavior and some are just personal vendettas and petty affairs should not be of interest to anyone. They stir up emotions and lead to injustice same as those that led to lynching and vigilantism in America. We need strong laws protecting personal privacy on the Internet all over the world and we must let the law take its course. We must not tolerate mob justice for if we don’t then one day we will find ourselves victims of such attacks, just because of what we said, the way we behaved or the way we look.