Tuesday, December 29, 2009

China's Online Crime Gangs: the debate

After CCTC's revelation that the Chinese Internet is infested with "Online Hitmen" and "Crime Gangs" trying to manipulate public opinion through blogs and BBS (See ESWN), a heated debate has started on the definition of "Online Organized Crime" and the reasons behind this sudden government witch hunt. This week, the Market Section of the Shanghai Business Daily was completely consumed by the matter. Columnist Chen Yongdong, associate professor in New Media at Shanghai Drama College, explains why it is useless to call companies who specialize in Viral campaigns "Crime Gangs". He mentions some famous Chinese Internet Memes and Virals, and ends with a suggestion for China's Central Television.

“Online Crime Gangs” are exaggerated

By Chen Yongdong

Recently, a CCTC program used words like “Online Underworld” (wangluo heishehui 网络黑社会), “Online Thugs” and other screaming words to describe the phenomenon of IT-companies using the Internet to defame and attack (dihui daji 诋毁打击) the competition. Even though it should be noted that the practices the television program described are in fact real, and have been common practice for some time now, I feel using terms like “Online Crime Gangs” are somewhat overtly critical. It almost reeks of ‘signal posting’ (biaotidang 标题党)(giving an alarming and unrelated title to a piece in order to attract more attention, haodalong).
First of all, online defamation is indeed very serious, but there is no need to make it into a grave danger. I should concede that there are in fact companies whose core business is to influence online opinion (wangluo yulun 网络舆论). Their web posting is endless, and their sphere of influence enormous (saodang fanwei 扫荡范围 lit. mopping reach, haodalong). Just look at last year’s “Master Kang’s mineral water sources” incident(see Danwei), or this year’s “Wanglaoji Herbal Tea additives” (see ChinaCSR) incident. These ‘scandals’ show on what scale the defamation tactics can be used. Actually, Central Television wasn’t even the first to discover these practices. Defamation tactics have been around for quite a while, and known by many netizens. The concept is very simple, just look at the hype started by the “Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to go home to eat!” post(see ChinaSmack). Nonetheless, even though many netizens feel this online defamation is a bad thing and creates confusion, there is no need to make it into a grave and monstrous danger. After all, netizens have a pretty good sense of judgement. It is just like when we encounter a street vendor, most people do not believe him, and we definitely don’t call street vendors “organized crime”.
Second of all, “Online Crime Gangs” is not an appropriate term, because it doesn’t cover the diversity of online misbehaviour. Maybe Central Television only used this term to attract attention, to make people notice the program. But this seems too hungry for attention. Anyhow, “Online Crime Gangs” seems to me like a very unclear concept. Among many types of online behaviour, we find posts online, meticulously crafted to be a guaranteed hype, but also posts that praise a certain product in a refined and subtle way, there are the famous ‘Human Flesh Searches” that violate privacy rights, there is slandering and swearing, and then there is also the defamation of business competition through web posts. Of all these different types, at least the first two can hardly be grouped together under the flag of ‘online crime’. Even the privacy violating ‘Human Flesh Searches’ are instigated by individual netizens. So we can conclude that only the last two categories effectively qualify for the term. And these forms of slander, name-calling and defamation are already illegal in the ‘offline world’, they are no different online. Even these forms of lawbreaking do not really qualify to be called “Organized Crime”.
China doesn’t have Organized Crime. Interestingly, back in August we were debating whether or not China had a criminal underworld. Back then it was said that, under Chinese law and in legal terms, we didn’t really have organized crime gangs, just “Mafia-style organizations”. If you look at it this way, how is it possible that China suddenly has “online crime gangs”? With regard to “organizations with a mafia-nature”, our penal code does not really have what it takes to tackle this online defamatory behaviour either. Domestic legal experts say “mafia style organizations” are recognized by having a clear degree of violence, in pursuit of financial gain, and handle in corrupt ways. Its members must be numerous, its internal organizational structure must be intimate and intricate. Their actions must always focus around some illegal way of making money, vainly maintaining a sphere of influence and to have domination as a goal. So clearly, online defamation does not qualify for it is not violent, corrupt or pursuing domination in any form.
Concluding, even as online defamatory behaviour is rampant, and as a business model of competition it is quite suspect, it does not rise up to the definition of “organized crime gangs”. So I would suggest Central Television to withdraw the term, to replace it with the much more appropriate and accurate term “Online Grey (huise 灰色)Industry”.

陈永东 Chen Yongdong 29-12-2009

translated by Haodalong

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