Gang deleted posts that harmed clients

Updated: 2015-07-08 07:52

By Zhang Yi(China Daily)

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Companies, celebrities and corrupt officials paid to protect their reputations on 'Net

Computer technician Yu Mou amassed a 7.8 million yuan ($1.3 million) fortune in four years by using his self-taught skills, according to police.

The catch is that Yu's ability to spend that pile of cash is now severely curtailed because he is languishing in a cell.

The business that the 26-year-old is alleged to have engaged in thrives in the darker regions of the Internet and barely existed 10 years ago.

For Yu and nearly 2,000 accomplices in 22 cities and regions across China, the task was simple: restore people's reputations by deleting online posts that cast them in a bad light.

By the time the gang was broken up in Qichun county, Hubei province, in May, it had raked in 50 million yuan in just five years, police said.

This is the biggest haul from such activities uncovered so far, police said, adding that 10 suspects were being held for further questioning and five were still on the run.

By sifting through the group's accounts, police discovered that clients had been charged from several hundred yuan to 4,000 yuan to delete a post, depending on the popularity of the websites on which the compromising information was displayed.

Further analysis of the gang's trading records suggested that the clients - mainly companies, celebrities and corrupt government officials - were prepared to splash out large sums to snuff out negative publicity or prevent allegations from going viral.

Police said they found documents relating to 52 deletions carried out on behalf of a county chief in graft-riddled Shanxi province. The cost: 38,000 yuan.

Itemized entries showed that in this case the amount charged for each deletion ranged from 200 to 2,000 yuan, and the entries identified the Web addresses from which posts were removed.

Police said the gang called itself Crisis Management and operated as a chat group on Tencent QQ.

"It is difficult to track down the culprits, who use pseudonyms, let alone nail down the evidence that would put them behind bars," said Luo Zhongsheng, the officer in charge of the case.

Separate roles

Police said members of the group barely knew one another, but there were clear lines of demarcation between three separate roles they performed.

Some were assigned to hunt for potential clients and negotiate the services to be provided and the price.

They listed links to negative posts about their clients in the chat group forum and contacted a second group of members, the representatives and agents of those able to carry out the deletion - mainly hackers or the owners or administrators of online forums.

To the uninitiated, deleting online posts may seem innocuous. However, Chinese law takes a dim view of it.

Not only does it impede the free circulation of information, Luo said, but it is in fact a crime. Some of those engaged in the business said they were unaware that they had broken the law.

In September 2013, the top court and the top procuratorate issued a legal interpretation to guide criminal trials involving the publication and circulation of information on the Internet. Providing a service to delete online posts is punishable if it generates a total profit of more than 20,000 yuan, and the supplier of the service will face a minimum penalty of five years in prison if he or she receives more than 250,000 yuan from the business.

However, this does not mean that no posts may be deleted. Everyone enjoys legal protection for their reputation and can ask a website to remove untrue or defamatory posts about them for free.

An administrator at online forum Xici Hutong said there is no charge for deleting a post if a complaint about misinformation is received with proof that the allegations made are untrue.

Acting as accomplices

Administrators at a number of websites have been found to be acting as accomplices in the illegal business.

The Cyberspace Administration Office said more than 100 websites have been shut down for deleting posts in exchange for payment since January. Some cases involving allegations of serious violations of the law have been handed over to the police for further investigation.

Tencent QQ has closed 512 accounts because of alleged misuse by gangs offering deletion services and removed nearly 13,000 blog accounts linked to such activities since the beginning of the year, according to the office.

An official said most of the websites were unregistered or had been registered with false information. For example, a website called China News Hotline Network mainly provided deletion services, but operated under the guise of exposing information that was in the public interest.

The network collected negative information about companies and individuals from other websites, left its contact details on its site, and waited for those wishing to have posts deleted to contact them.

Some websites of this kind ask clients to list payments for their services as advertising costs, sponsorship fees or partnership payments.

Others claim they are portals for government entities and extort money from clients who do not want to see negative material about them published on such sites.

Some sites blackmail companies by threatening to spread negative news about them if they are unwilling to pay a large amount of money.

Beijing police are investigating a case in which Chen Ruigang, head of the environmental protection channel of the China Economics website, allegedly asked a company to pay 300,000 yuan to delete a news story accusing it of causing pollution.

Ten companies have been blackmailed by Chen for a total of 6 million yuan during the past three years, according to police.

An editor surnamed Qiu at the Phoenix News website was sentenced to five years in prison in June for accepting 118,000 yuan for deleting negative news items on his website from October 2012 to October 2013.

As well as website administrators, some highflying government officials in charge of publicity departments are also involved in the deletion business.

Gao Jianyun, former deputy head of a bureau of the Communist Party of China's publicity department, has been found guilty of taking huge bribes and deleting online negative information about a company. He was removed from his post and expelled from the Party in April last year, according to a statement issued by the country's top graft fighters.

"The practice greatly undermines the business environment of regular websites and legal information services," said Wu Ming'an, a criminal law professor at China University of Political Science and Law.

Everyone has the right to express themselves freely online and post their opinions, and such posts are protected by law, he added.

"Under criminal law, the supplier of the service commits the offense of operating an illegal business. Efforts to clamp down on such services are intended to safeguard freedom of expression and protect regular business order in the Internet information technology sector."

Sun Jungong, spokesman for the country's top court, said posts being deleted by so-called crisis management companies are mostly legitimate comments that play an important role in the exchange of information.

"Information flow is a major function of the Internet and therefore there is a need to regulate website services to protect this function," Sun said.

Deleting online posts for profit violates the statutory rights of netizens and jeopardizes regular business order, he added.

Gang deleted posts that harmed clients

 Gang deleted posts that harmed clients

Police collect computers in May that had been seized during a crackdown on the gang that made millions of yuan by hacking into the Internet. Yu Guoqing / Xinhua

(China Daily 07/08/2015 page5)