Advancing systemic governance of cyber violence

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-07-19

Two lawyers impart basic legal knowledge to an online audience over internet in Haigang Justice Bureau in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province in 2023. Photo: CFP

General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized at the symposium on cybersecurity and informatization, that “cyberspace is a common spiritual garden for hundreds of millions of people. If the sky is clear and the air fresh in cyberspace, if its ecology is good, it will conform to the interest of the people. A pestilent atmosphere and a decaying ecology in cyberspace does not conform to the interest of the people.” Following the prevalence of telecommunications network fraud, cyber violence has emerged as the second major cancer threatening the healthy ecosystem of cyberspace.

The Cyberspace Administration of China issued, on 4 November 2022, a Notice on Effectively Strengthening the Governance of Cyber Violence (referred to as the “Notice” below), marking important progress in the standardized and systematic governance of cyber violence. The “Notice” encompasses the four mechanisms of technological, social, industrial, and counter-norm formation in relation to cyber violence. Its objective is to strengthen the collective responsibility of various entities in governing cyberspace, and to clarify the proactive obligations of all “gatekeepers” in preventing such incidents. In the future, it is needed to further elevate effective practices and policy documents into specialized legal provisions through small, quick, flexible, and precise legislative measures, and promote the systematic governance and source control of cyber violence by ensuring the completeness and pre-positioning of key processes and major institutions. 

Modern society & cyber violence

Four interrelated factors play critical roles in modern information technology societies: technology, society, the market, and norms. The modern societal mechanisms behind the formation of cyber violence stem from this structure, and any systematic solution for governing cyber violence must take these factors into account.

At the technological level, the internet has significantly lowered the barriers for individuals to inflict harm on others. With just a few clicks or keystrokes, acts of violence can be executed. This not only increases the likelihood of cyber violence but also allows it to escalate rapidly in terms of magnitude and impact. The connectivity of the internet leads to more netizens engaging in collective harm, thinking that the law cannot punish numerous offenders. The anonymity and remote nature of the internet contribute to a sense of disinhibition. In the online environment, individuals may often feel less constrained, leading to more unrestrained behavior. Psychological studies have demonstrated that people’s empathy and friendliness significantly increase when interacting with real individuals, but it becomes challenging to genuinely perceive the pain of others in the online realm. 

From the societal perspective, modern citizens are increasingly willing to shape their social image by voluntarily disclosing personal identity information to the public. Furthermore, due to the deep integration of the information society, individuals may also find themselves compelled to disclose various pieces of information to relevant parties. Whether it is through voluntary self-disclosure or the passive leakage of personal and private information, these actions provide certain netizens with opportunities to precisely target and perpetrate acts of violence. The advent of the internet means that, for the first time in history, individuals can abandon their inherent identities in the physical world and freely express themselves without much consequence. In the virtual environment of the internet, individuals’ misconceptions are more likely be expressed, and their dark emotions could be amplified, all directed towards the victims of cyberbullying. What’s worse, the complexity of the accountability procedures and the high likelihood of victims opting to settle the matter, rather than pursue legal action, contribute to the rampant spread of cyber violence.

At the market level, Karl Marx’s theory of “alienation” has taken on new forms and organizational expressions under the conditions of “digital capitalism.” Information technology and the digital economy were originally meant to be safeguarded by cybersecurity and promote personal development and social harmony. However, the alienation of the internet economy has led to the emergence of “internet water armies” or troll armies that engage in illegal activities such as insults, defamation, rumors, and spreading false information for personal gain. There have even been instances of online dark PR, treating individuals as mere collections of information and engaging in exchange of interests as if trading commodities. This alienation in the culture of information communication and the digital economy has resulted in backlash not only for participants but also for onlookers. 

At the normative level, insufficiently detailed and robust rules on online platforms, inadequate staffing, weak platform regulations, and lax enforcement mechanisms have contributed to unsatisfactory prevention and handling of cyber violence. The recent release of anti-cyberbullying guidelines by several platforms is a step forward. However, the technical and manpower requirements for dealing with cyber violence are significant, and regulatory authorities in some regions may allocate limited resources selectively based on the level of public attention generated by each case. This approach may create an impression of opportunities for perpetrators, as only cases that trigger public outrage are treated seriously.

Firstly, the Civil Code explicitly stipulates that a natural person enjoys the rights to life, body, health, personal name, portrait, reputation, honor, privacy, and marry by choice, among other rights. However, in civil law, the victim needs to file a lawsuit, and it can be challenging for the victim to obtain the personal identity of the perpetrator. In such cases, the court may decline to accept the case. 

Secondly, the Law of the PRC on Penalties for Administration of Public Security provides administrative detention penalties for openly humiliating or slandering another person. However, the enforcement of public security penalties faces challenges related to the relatively scarce and uneven distribution of law enforcement resources across different regions.

Thirdly, the Criminal Law establishes criminal liability for publicly insulting or defaming others. However, the prosecution process imposes limitations, as it requires the victim to file a private prosecution and gather evidence, which can be difficult. Judicial authorities have also issued relevant judicial opinions to address cybercrime, but there are still a series of implementation issues. 

System Mechanisms

Modern people can hardly reject the intervention and permeation of the internet in daily life, but we can make efforts to step out of the cage of cyber violence, and truly realize the construction of a positive digital China through the promotion of the four factors of technology, society, the market, and norms, along with the main institutional provisions.

On the technological level, in order to address the issue of internet anonymity, we need to strengthen the promotion of laws and regulations that require real-name registration in the background. By presenting the possibility of accountability, targeted and precise publicity, education, algorithmic warnings, blocking, interception, etc., we can encourage netizens to curb their own violent impulses. On the social level, netizens themselves should pay attention to the protection of personal information and privacy in their daily life, disclosing them only when necessary and legal, to give fewer opportunities to perpetrators. Organizations protecting women and adolescents should provide legal and psychological support to vulnerable groups when they suffer from cyber violence on a regular basis, both institutionally and in terms of measures. 

At the market level, internet trolls or organizations that have been reported and dealt with multiple times must be strictly managed in a coordinated manner, including being forbidden from using internet platform information facilities and providing internet information services for a certain period. On the normative level, internet platforms, as administrative entities authorized to manage, should refine rules and make sure users fully understand relevant legal norms and community ethics before they register and post comments. After receiving reports and warnings of cyber violence, they should promptly handle obvious cases and initially mute the perpetrators. After the platform or law enforcement and judicial authorities confirm that their behavior is illegal or violates community ethics, they should be added to a black or graylist, and their actions should be publicized on the platform to strengthen netizens’ sense of responsibility.

The aforementioned system has initially taken shape in the Notice. For the long term, it is necessary to further clarify the structure of multi-department coordination and comprehensive governance through a legal normative system, in order to achieve true synergy. For instance, we could explore the drafting of a dedicated anti-cyber violence law, drawing from the legislative experience of laws such as the Anti-Domestic Violence Law and the Law Against Telecom and Online Fraud. This would facilitate the effective integration of civil, administrative, and criminal liabilities. Standalone legislation can specifically address cyber violence through cross-departmental law system governance, while maintaining the stability of existing laws. 

Firstly, in terms of legislative procedures, standalone legislation can concentrate on considering related technical measures and the improvement of law enforcement and judicial systems within the same process, thereby avoiding the problem of legislative resource dispersion and disjointed provisions caused by improving related clauses in separate laws.

Secondly, from a legal system perspective, standalone legislation can maintain the relative stability and completeness of the existing legal system while introducing and refining a series of measures specifically for the prominent issue of cyber violence in information scenarios. A unified Anti-Cyber Violence Law can comprehensively and accurately convey the individual, group, and societal harms of cyber violence, and vigorously promote a governance pattern that precisely supports and systematically integrates the four dimensions of technology, society, the market, and norms. 

A unified Anti-Cyber Violence Law requires refined and improved rules for accountability, so as to realize a synergistic and efficient governance pattern. Civil litigation should establish a mechanism that allows courts to request platforms to provide personal information of suspected perpetrators. Referring to the setup of internet courts across grassroots regions, public security punishments should establish a unified mechanism to address cyber violence across these regions. This would compensate for deficiencies in enforcement and technical capabilities in these areas. In criminal private prosecutions, it should be clarified that courts require law enforcement agencies to provide appropriate assistance in collecting relevant evidence and defining the extent to which the influence of cyber violence constitutes “serious disruption of social order,” the standard for converting private prosecution to public prosecution.

These improvements in judiciary and law enforcement have already been independently explored to varying degrees in different regions. A case in Hangzhou where a woman picking up her package was falsely accused of infidelity was an example. The case was transferred from private prosecution to public prosecution. However, further clarification, standardization, and systematization are yet needed in legislation. Multiple main bodies such as internet platforms, law enforcement agencies, and judicial institutions should establish coordinated governance models according to the classification and grading of cyber violence, promoting the maturation and standardization of various systems. This important exploration in the field of digital security legislation will further improve social governance and the social governance system. 


Mei Mengsuo is from the Rural Governance Research Center at Beijing Agricultural College, and Guo Zhilong is from CUPL Institute of Cyber Law.




Editor:Yu Hui

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