How To Discuss User Privacy In China?

One of the fun things about China, and the Chinese Internet, is that new issues can pop up very quickly, and become major issues.

This has just happened with the issue of user privacy on the Internet. With more social network sites, and more users posting real information about themselves, along with contact information, etc. this has become a real issue.

I’m not going to offer a solution to this very complex issue. Instead, I’d like to bring up another issue: “How do you have a productive discussion, where all get a chance to contribute to the debate, get heard, and then come to some kind of agreement about a solution?”

Here is the problem. This issue flared up when many SNS sites started blocking Baidu’s spiders from crawling their sites. The official reason: to protect users’ privacy.

The problem is that there has been no discussion about what user privacy is. The definition of privacy is very different for a 12 year-old girl and her 40 year-old mother and, in turn, is very different for a 22 year-old gay man.

Each of them, or their parent/s, may have very different ideas of what constitutes user privacy. The gay man may not want to reveal his sexual orientation except for his closest male partner/s, and may not want anyone else, including family, to know. The same goes for religious affiliation, etc.

These are very real issues which need to be discussed and thrashed out in the open, and people need to be able to put forth their views for discussion. This is a vital and natural part of what constitutes a civil society, which is what the Chinese government supports and advocates.

Unfortunately, there is no clear mechanism for discussing a very complex issue like user privacy in China today.

Instead, we have companies coming out with thinly-disguised excuses about privacy, when in reality it looks more like a pissing match between companies over whose spiders can crawl over whose sites. Are the two groups going to come up with different, even opposing, ideas and definitions about what constitutes user privacy, and force people to choose one or the other? If that is the case, then it’s not really about user privacy, it’s about choosing between one camp or the other, with every user forced to make a choice.

But that isn’t what the Internet is all about. The Internet is all about empowering people so that they can make their own choices. The Internet is about pushing decisions to the edge, where people make their choices, and if they don’t like them, they can change them later on.

This is what is missing in China. Without this system or mechanism, there is just endless bickering and noise, and what should be a serious discussion with a well-thought conclusion, usually ends up in a lot of noise with the loudest shouters winning.

What is an important issue, usually ends inconclusively.

Or as the Chinese say 不了了之。

Chinese Internet users deserve something better.