The Public Consensus for Protecting Online Information

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-05-28 18:36
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Recently, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress examined and approved the Decision on Strengthening Online Information Protection. The passage of this document represents a major event in China’s social affairs that has come in response to the expectations of the public.

In today’s information society, the Internet is the major platform for the flow of information. However, while the Internet has made it extremely easy for people to obtain and exchange information, it has also increased the risk of personal information being unlawfully disclosed, collected, publicized, disseminated, and used.

In a modern society, everyone enjoys the right to privacy, which constitutes an important aspect of personal rights. Personal rights, like the right to life and liberty, constitute a fundamental human right. Privacy covers any personal information, activity, or space that is unrelated to the public domain. The level of respect and protection that a society affords to privacy is an indicator of how civilized that country or society is.

The awareness of civil rights in China has surged along with the country’s economic and social development, and thus demands for the protection of personal privacy becoming increasingly strong. Despite this, however, the shortcomings of China’s legal system have resulted in the insufficient protection of personal privacy during the course of judicial practice. In particular, the infringement of rights on the Internet has become a frequent occurrence, and is showing signs of becoming increasingly severe. The collection and sale of Internet users’ personal information without their permission has become a means by which some people have sought to profit. Such information may include an individual’s name, gender, age, marital status, home address, identity card number, place of work, phone number, email address, Internet account, credit card number, online trading account, QQ number, and online gaming account. There have been many cases in which private information has been publicized, spread, and disseminated on the Internet without the authorization of those in question, and the violation of people’s privacy through activities such as “human flesh searches” has become commonplace. Some network operators have taken an indulgent attitude towards the infringement of rights on the Internet, causing the personal details of their subscribers to be leaked online. At the same time, some software and hardware providers have incorporated special functions for collecting the information of users in the products that they produce and sell, thus violating the privacy of their customers.

Following a string of complaints over illegal PR deals on the Internet, a high-level forum to discuss Internet legislation and information security was held on December 26, 2012. At the meeting, leaders from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Public Security, influential public figures, high-ranking corporate executives, and industry experts engaged in in-depth discussions on how to promote the lawful regulation of the Internet in China. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Li Xin

Failure to adequately protect personal privacy will lead to unwarranted intrusion into people’s daily lives, not only disrupting their peace of mind, but potentially causing even more severe damage. This being the case, more and more countries are taking measures to strengthen the protection of information online. Back in the 1990s, the European Union formulated and promulgated the Data Protection Directive, emphasizing that citizens must not only be given the right to access public information, but their privacy must also be protected. The US, on the other hand, has introduced an online privacy seal program, which asks websites and network equipment providers to make their privacy policies public, thereby bringing their activities under the oversight of the public, subscribers, the government, and the law.

Will the lawful regulation of the Internet impede freedom of speech online? The Internet has provided us with a public platform on which we can express ourselves freely. On that basis, the regulation of the Internet according to the law implies both the protection of legitimate rights and interests, and the restriction of illegal activities. It is ignorant to regard freedom as the right to say and do what one pleases. There can be no freedom if people are able to simply do whatever they like. Our own freedoms come on the condition that they do not jeopardize the freedoms of others. Therefore, in addition to enjoying our own personal freedoms, we must respect the rights that others enjoy in accordance with the law, and comply with the requirements of morality, the law, and public order. That is what freedom is all about. 

Will the lawful regulation of the Internet hinder the exposure of corruption online? In recent years, there have been many cases in which corrupt officials have been punished and removed from office after their misconduct has been exposed online. Although the exposure of corruption on the Internet has yielded gratifying results, in some cases, it has strayed off course, becoming something else entirely. Sensational accounts of misconduct have tended to create huge furor, leaving no room for explanation and causing people to jump to rash conclusions, even though the authenticity of such accounts is often unverified. This will unavoidably result in innocent people being harmed from time to time. The unhealthy interest sparked when indecent videos involving corrupt officials surface online turns what is a very serious fight against corruption into a vulgar form of entertainment. Furthermore, the prevalence of unlawful practices such as bugging and secret filming is undermining interpersonal relationships and social morality, meaning that anyone could become a victim. In fact, in recent years, China’s discipline inspection and supervision agencies have launched various websites for people to report the misconduct of corrupt officials. These efforts have ensured that there are legitimate and proper channels for the exposure of corruption on the Internet. Of course, these legitimate channels will only be able to function properly if the related departments take online reports seriously and make good use of them.

Strengthening the protection of online information has a major bearing on our efforts to respect and safeguard human rights and to develop a harmonious and peaceful society. There is a saying in China that nothing can be accomplished without rules and norms. This also applies to the Internet, which cannot be allowed to become a lawless place. In line with the principles of governing the country in accordance with the law and building a socialist country under the rule of law, the government has the right to regulate the Internet in accordance with the law, service providers have a responsibility to run their websites in accordance with the law, and the public have an obligation to use the Internet in accordance with the law.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.1, 2013)

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