Recently in the court of Shanghai Qingpu district, an “Internet public relations” company was found guilty of violating the article on Computer System Security in China’s Criminal Law. What this company did was to force a website to delete negative records of its client by hiring a hacker to attack the website.
“Internet PR” is a thriving industry. What’s special about Chinese Internet PR companies is that they don’t just manage social media publicity like their Western peers, they also offer water army service, post deleting service, and even hacking service. I’ve written about how the water army can be your personal online mercenary and crowd out voices of your critics. But Internet PR companies can also delete negative information about you by bribing web-masters and editors. For example, during the poisonous milk crisis in 2008, milk companies hired PR companies to help them “persuade” the search engine Baidu and major web portals to delete posts and discussion threads about their polluted products.
These PR companies often act in a treacherous way: in the morning they take your order to spread negative news about your competitor, but in the afternoon they might already get paid by your competitors to delete those news, and at night they might be posting negative news about you if your competitor pays more. Some of them even make up negative news about a company themselves in order to get deals of “post deleting”.
But this indicted PR company crossed the line by hiring hackers to attack a website that would not collaborate with them. It accepted an order from an accounting company to erase its past record of fraud on the Internet. So it contacted websites that contain such record, but one of these websites simply refused to collaborate no matter what they offer. Then it decided to pressure the website by hiring a hacker, who is a young man in early 20s, to attack and shut down that website. But the people in this PR company have no idea that the owner of this website reported their attack to the police, nor did they realize that their behavior is a criminal offense.
This case is a good warning for me also. I always thought the cyberspace in China is a wild west where you can get away with murder, as long as you don’t criticize the government. I have been saving money for a campaign that will transform my online image into a young man with no past but many followers. But now I am worried. Would there be more constraint on the practices of the water army, post deleters, and hackers? How will China’s legal system adapt to the new media sphere?