Online Abuse: Who Should Pay?

This will be quick and dirty, folks. I’m T-minus seven hours to a flight back to Beijing. Due to an unforeseen (i.e. it was never discussed) scheduling error, your favorite china/divide authors are all currently in transit between the U.S. and China. Oddly enough, the two white guys are on the way back to China, while the Asian guy is going to California. If that doesn’t encapsulate the spirit of china/divide, I don’t know what does.

So anyway, I’ll leave you with this little tidbit before I take off. Hopefully I will be back early next week with something more substantial.

The topic is online liability for sharing personal information and for generally abusive behavior. This is a good point of discussion for our readers, abusive scamps that you are (at least when you don your Comment Section avatars).

The latest development in this area of Chinese law concerns a professor who is slightly bent out of shape:

Cai Jiming, humanities and social sciences professor at Tsinghua University, is suing China’s biggest Internet search company, Baidu, for the personal abuse posted by netizens on the company’s forum.

The trial began a few days ago in Haidian. Prof Cai has been the recipient of abuse due to his support for the change in China’s holiday schedule. If you recall, we used to enjoy a lovely 7-day May Day holiday, along with the long holidays for National Day and Spring Festival.

Prof Cai and his cronies in the government changed to more frequent, shorter holidays, so short that long trips back to one’s home town are more difficult. Needless to say, this did not go over well with a lot of people:

According to Cai’s lawyer, Li Xiaobo, netizens mad at losing a long holiday not only posted abusive comments on Baidu Postbar, they also publicized his telephone number and e-mail address on the forum and published an edited photograph that combined his head with the body of a dog.

That last bit was a low blow, I’ll admit. I should never have done it, but I had just bought a new copy of Photoshop and wanted to try it out.

Seriously, though (well, mostly seriously), some of this not only pissed off Prof Cai but harmed him and his family:

Li said that for two years Cai received countless harassing phone calls, 135 text messages and 81 e-mails. The situation became so bad that his wife and daughter didn’t dare admit their relationship to him in front of others.

OK, sounds awful. The next question is what to do about it. There are a few folks to go after.

  • First, there are the people who posted the comments in the first place. Unfortunately there are probably thousands of them, making litigation difficult.
  • Second, go after the host, in this case Baidu, whose BBS was the platform used. Baidu was in control of the content, after all.
  • Third, the ISP, which could have shut down the site if and when the abusive behavior went over the line.

Prof Cai is, not surprisingly, going with Option #2:

Cai is seeking 2 million yuan in compensation for emotional distress and demanding an apology be posted on Baidu’s forum homepage for more than two years.

Baidu argues it is not responsible for the netizen’s comments and actions and says Cai’s phone number and email address were available on the Tsinghua University’s website.

Baidu’s argument on the public nature of the personal information is a pretty good one, although a judge could still find that the information was specifically posted as an act of intimidation (but not likely).

So . . . it’s question time. Don’t worry about the law here. Trust me that there is plenty of wiggle room for the judge to operate in this case, plus there were the options available to Prof Cai before they filed. In other words, lots of things to discuss.

1. Is this sort of “abusive behavior” something that should be shut down, or was this just something that Prof Cai should have to deal with as a semi-public figure?

2. Should there be any repercussions for the anonymous abusers? Will the new “Real Name” system for online fora help to fix this situation?

3. Should Baidu be held liable? Is there anything they could/should have done?

4. What about the ISP? Or should they just stay out of this?

Again, sorry for the paucity of posts. Travel’s a bitch, but all will be back to normal soon. And to anyone who still wants to register a complaint, I have two words for you lazy free riders out there: GUEST POST. Think about it.


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  1. Dan

    81 emails in a year? So friggin what? I’ve gotten 81 emails in an hour and I’ve never sued anyone. 81 a year works out to about one every four days. Big deal??!!

    • 81 e-mails of abuse or just 81 e-mails? Let’s face it – given the nature of the subject (i.e. a person getting abused for towing the party line) – there could be a good chance this case could have some ripple effect for the rest of the P.R. Chinese Internet community.

      Flipside? The China Daily may finally clean out that mess that is the China Daily BBS (i.e. SPAM, ghost accounts, and 2ch/4chan behaviour).

  2. nongnu

    I’ve received 135 text messages in one week asking me to work as prostitute/gigolo for a local hotel…

  3. Yeah, I’d be down for a guest post, as I’d mentioned to His Kai-ness and General Custer, Solicitor.

  4. Jones

    I want to write a post on the divide between Chinatowns in the US and the ones in Canada.

  5. I want to write about accessing chinadivide on a proxy server at the internet cafe,

    – wait, am doing it now,


  6. King Tubby

    Stan. You are not being honest with your loyal readers. Kai has abandoned CD and taken up with some botoxed Santa Barabara millionairess and developed an addiction for big wave surfing ….Mavericks.

Continuing the Discussion