Thursday, January 19, 2012

Name-Verification Advancement

BBC News has reported that China is continuing to extend control of the internet over netizens, requiring more users to register for websites using their real names and establishing their identity on the internet.

For most websites, such as micro-blogging websites like Twitter or most blogs, netizens around the world can create usernames and register on the websites with little more than an e-mail address to verify registration. Once completed, netziens are not required to verify their real identity or names.

However, in some areas in China, the government is requiring users to register using name-verification to prove their identity, thus eliminating any thread of anonymity that might be granted to netizens on the these websites. Real name-verification will allow websites, and thus the Chinese government, to discover the identity of the author of any post on these websites.

The Chinese government is initiating the spread of these changes to curb "irrational voices, negative public opinion and harmful information" on Chinese microblog websites. The government says that many hide behind anonymity on these microblogging websites and use that ability to cause dissent and spread malicious rumors. The speed of information not controlled by official media on these sites worries officials, who are banking on the success of these pilot name-verification programs in major cities across China.

This brings up many questions - if you deem yourself a citizen of the Internet, are you then required to establish identity? Is anonymity on the internet a thing of the past? And what is the Chinese Communist Party's thought process for initiating these online reforms?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Daedalum Films Presents (Part II)

After obtaining the password for the second part of Daedalum Films' documentary "Human Flesh Search Engine," I eagerly went to view the remaining part of the film and am here with a review.

The second part of the documentary was titled "Context" and sought to explain how the internet is used in China, and why this phenomena can grow and thrive in China's cultural setting. Once again narrated by Luis A. Tapia, the film also took comments from four online personalities, including one man who has taken part in these online scavenger hunts.

It began by explaining the backbone of the search engine: forum websites (or BBSs). These websites allow users to register under an anonymous online handle and can access the forums. Forums are available to post questions, images, and allows users to comment on the posts of others. The film explains that the forums grant users the ability to meet other like-minded people, and that many use the forums to gain fame for their online handle through their quick wit and expression.

What the documentary stresses is how these forums provide a means for netizens to express themselves and be heard - something that is not always possible offline. The search engine thus provides an internet democracy, where there is often a "need to make noise to make leaders notice." I loved how the film brought up the internet demographics in China, the largest web population of any nation in the world, which is made up primarily of young adults born in the 1980s or later.

But why China? Tapia's interviewees explain that there is a strong tie to the old Confucian ideal of righteousness that is evident throughout the Human Flesh Search Engine. The Confucian ideal stresses that if one sees something that's unjust, one needs to "right the wrong" in order to be deemed a noble man. To ignore it is wrong.

Lastly the film compared similarities between the search engine and the Cultural Revolution, but went on to stress that while similarities exist, these two events are still very far apart, and that the actions of the past do not appear to be resurfacing in the present. I felt this was a strong argument that I completely agree with.

I felt this was an amazing documentary that was both well-made and informative, that brought to life many of the cases and sentiments that will be discussed and posted on this research blog.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Daedalum Films Presents

"Human Flesh Search Engine" is a short documentary film by Daedalum Films that seeks to find out "what [the Human Flesh Search Engine] can it tell us about modern China." Directed, produced, and narrated by Luis A. Tapia, the documentary does an amazing job of bringing the Human Flesh Search Engine to life, delving deep into its origins and bringing faces to many of the online investigations that have both enacted justice and brought down the lives on those targeted. The film is cinematically beautiful and directs the viewer's full attention from start to finish.

The documentary begins with Part I: Origins and Cases which introduces the phenomena and the origin of it's name. Tapia explains that the direct translation of the name "Human Flesh" is most notably used in all instances of this "online scavenger hunt" being displayed notoriously in western media. Yet he questions if this literal translation is appropriate - when in fact the term "human-powered search engine" might better serve. Throughout the film Tapia's knowledge of Chinese culture and command of the language are apparent.

The film gives a strong background on how the term was coined and became popularly used in China from it's beginnings with and the "human-powered" search engine's spread throughout other forum-based websites. As the film delves into some of the most notorious cases in recent years, Tapia uses a wealth of knowledge for each instance, citing websites where the search engine began, and including photos and video footage when available. The documentary continues to showcase the galvanizing effects the stories have on netizens, and how those netizens have worked to uncover the identity and location of those at fault, mentioning how the search engine's mob mentality can ruin the lives of those targeted, but also bring about justice to others.

What I really appreciated was how Tapia mentioned the positive aspects of the phenomena; that the human-powered searches are not solely used to uncover the identities of those who commit wrongs to society. As mentioned in my thesis, the documentary explains how the search engine masses can work to locate missing people, as seen in the aftermath of the Sichuan Earthquake or through the website Ren Rou Wang.

My review of the second part should be coming shortly - at present a password is required to view it on Daedalum's website, which I've inquired about how to obtain.

Friday, January 6, 2012

China's Cyberposse

I came across this article entitled "China's Cyberposse" that was published in early 2010 right after I completed my research thesis. Published by the New York Times, the article provides an overview to western audiences about the backbone of the Human Flesh Search Engine. While the article was published by the New York Times, however I was unable to gain access to the full article but found it copy and pasted onto this Chinese web forum. What surprised me about the article is that it both my thesis and the article open in very similar fashions with the case of Wang Jue: the Kitten Killer of Hangzhou. Furthermore, the article utilizes similar sources to the ones I analyzed and mentioned the same cases.

What I disliked about the article was that the author made a clear line drawn between western and Chinese internet - that this sort of phenomena would not happen in the west. I beg to differ, I believe that while the social aspects and historical perspectives make it a uniquely Chinese occurrence, I believe the sheer number of Chinese internet users is what powers the investigative work that makes the Human Flesh Search Engine so powerful, a topic I discuss at length in my thesis.

And let's not forget that viral web investigation is not absent from the western internet. However, more often than not the power of the internet is used to bring about moderate fame or overexposure. Take for example the popularity of video bloggers on YouTube, many of whom reach thousands of views a day and are able to share their views and social commentaries on the internet. While the exposure element remains similar to the Chinese internet, western internet is missing the community investigation and collective moral righteousness found through the Human Flesh Search Engine.

I was just a little surprised that as I read this article it began to sound as though it could be a succinct version of my paper. I'm in no way saying that anything of mine was used, just simply pointing out that I believe when beginning to research the Human Flesh Search Engine, certain cases of the investigative work point researchers onto similar paths. And certain cases also draw more attention, especially in western media, than others.

However, the article did point to a Chinese author who is has written a book titled Human Flesh Search which has been released in China. It's times like this when I wish that I spent more time on my Chinese learning over the years, although my reading ability has always been a bit weak due to my inability to devote much time to the study of grammar. And I don't foresee this being translated into English any time soon...

Tomorrow expect a post reviewing the Human Flesh Search Engine as portrayed in film and television. One post will be dedicated to the recent Law and Order episode devoted to and similarly titled "Human Flesh Search Engine." The other will be a review of "Human Flesh Search Engine," a short film by Daedalum Films which explores the phenomena and asks the question: "what can it tell us about modern China?" I'm excited to view both of these and will provide necessary links and reference information in their respective posts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Consent of the Networked

I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Rebecca MacKinnon's book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, which is being released January 31st. The book's summary moves the debate about if internet can shape policy and spur increased freedoms to how the internet can attain these ends. It seems as though the book will discuss how citizens need to defend their liberties and rights on the internet in the same way one would do through a rally or protest offline. MacKinnon relates web users to "netizens" - a term I used often in my thesis - which are people who act like citizens of the internet "and take ownership and responsibility for [their] digital future." To find out more about this upcoming book, or to pre-order, visit the book's official website.

MacKinnon, whom I referenced in my thesis, became a role model of mine as I wrote it. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, MacKinnon has worked extensively in China as a journalist and correspondent. She founded Global Voices Online, an "international citizen media network" and works to research and document how the internet shapes global policy and freedom of expression. She even testified in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on "China’s Information Control Practices and the Implications for the United States" and is considered an expert in Chinese internet censorship.

One post written by MacKinnon on her blog RConversation greatly inspired my thesis and research. While my adviser and I made connections between the modern movements and actions taken by netizens utilizing the Human Flesh Search Engine, MacKinnon drew a strong parallel between these cyber-vigilantes and the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. In her post titled "From Red Guards to Cyber-Vigilantism to Where Next?", MacKinnon likens Red Guards of the past who targeted members of the bureaucracy to Chinese netizens who have recently been targeting corrupt officials through the internet, leading to quite a few sackings.

For more information on the Human Flesh Search Engine being utilized to end corruption, I urge you to visit my thesis above where I discuss the search engine and corruption, or visit the Instances section above for concise snippets.