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Shen Weiwei LLM ‘12 on “Human Flesh Search Engine” and Chinese Internet Regulation

June 19, 2012

Shen Weiwei, who graduated in May with honors from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, will travel to the University of Oxford this month to participate in an international conference on Chinese Media Legislation and Regulation. Shen, who earned an LLM degree at Penn Law, will present a paper exploring privacy protection in the context of a Chinese Internet phenomenon known as “human flesh search engine.”

The name refers to a form of vigilante justice in which Internet users employ social media networks to identify people who have committed some sort of offense or social breach, with the goal of exposing them to public humiliation. Organized by Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law & Policy, the conference will take place June 15 and 16. Shen, whose participation is being supported by a Penn Law travel stipend, will be Tweeting from the conference. He spoke recently with Penn Law about his research and interest in Internet law.

Penn Law (PL): Could you describe your research and the paper you will present?
 
Shen Weiwei (SW): Building on an article written under the supervision of Prof. Anita Allen, I will examine the tension between free speech and privacy protection on the Chinese Internet. My article explores the first “human flesh search engine” case in China– the Wang Fei Case, which has received a great deal of attention in China.
 
PL: Please tell us about the case.
 
SW: On December 29, 2007, Jiang Yan committed suicide in Beijing. Several days later her diary, which revealed her misery after discovering her husband Wang Fei’s adultery, was posted and distributed online. Then the “human flesh search engine” for her cheating husband began. Wang Fei soon found himself on top of a “most wanted” list on the Internet. Internet users sniffed out and placed his photos, addresses, phone numbers and affiliations on major portals for all to see.

As a result, he and his family were harassed and threatened: He received numerous phone calls criticizing him; expletives were spray-painted on the doors of his parents’ house; strangers contacted his company, which later suspended him. In 2009, he brought a lawsuit in Beijing District Court on the ground of the right to privacy and eventually won the case, which marked by far the most important case concerning “human flesh search engine” in China.
 
PL: Before coming to Penn Law, you earned a Master of Science degree from Oxford, in Social Science of the Internet. How did you become interested in the field?
 
SW: I have long been fascinated by the evolving Internet phenomena. At the age of 16, I launched my first website, Starting Eleven, an online community for thousands of soccer fans from all over the world. During my undergraduate years, my friends and I launched Answerhoop.com. Much to my surprise, by late 2004 Answerhoop.com had generated so much web traffic that it drew the attention of Chinese governmental authorities, who shut it down because it lacked administrative registration. This event made me question: What are the limits of regulatory intervention in the Internet age?
 
PL: Is that what led you to law school?
 
SW: My interest in Internet regulation germinated in these experiences and grew rapidly into a passion that I pursued at Tsinghua Law School in Beijing. Internet law - as a new and rapidly growing area of legal study - attracted my attention and has been my professional and academic pursuit since then.

Beyond the coursework at the law school, I devoted much of my attention to Internet law events and research. I co-translated the book Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace version 2.0 by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig into Chinese. The publication of my translation received immense public attention in China, especially in the area of Internet-related policy making.
 
PL: What led you to Penn Law and how did you benefit from your legal studies here?
 
SW: My desire for a cross-disciplinary legal education was one of the main reasons I chose Penn Law, and I could not be happier with my decision. I have benefited greatly from taking courses and seminars at Penn Law. For example, in Prof. Christopher Yoo’s Global Research Seminar in Internet Law, I traveled with other classmates to Washington, D.C., Germany and Brussels to conduct field research with policymakers, officials, judges, corporate executives and other stakeholders to compare Internet regulation between the U.S. and Germany. Another example is Prof. Gideon Parchomovsky’s Legal Scholarship Seminar, in which we had the opportunity to speak with law professors from Penn and other leading law schools.
 
PL: What are your future plans?
 
SW: I might well further my legal education in the United States, either in a JD program or a SJD program. And I will continue to focus on Internet law in the future. I’m trying to do things that interest me and see where it takes me.
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