Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Taming Korea's Wild Wild Web

In a society where over 97% of households have high-speed broadband access, the Internet has the power to make or break the careers of South Korean politicians and entertainers and to publicize the private lives of common individuals. Live Web-casts of political rallies and street protests, like those this summer against U.S. beef imports, are common. And “netizens” are vigilant in their monitoring of politicians and the press.

But there is a downside. Internet bullying is a major problem. In 2005, netizens so harassed a girl who had not cleaned up after her dog that one newspaper called it “a kind of nationwide cyber lynching.” Today, many Koreans believe that Internet bullying caused the recent suicide of the famous actress, Choe Jin Sil. Korea’s ruling Grand National Party has seized the moment to push for stronger regulation and hopes to pass new legislation to increase Internet regulation by the end of the year.

The proposed legislation 1) requires real-name identification system for all who post comments online; 2) mandates portals to delete “malicious entries” within 24 hours of receiving complaints; 3) requires sites with more than 100,000 visitors, rather than the current 300,000, to verify user identities. Violators—both providers and consumers—can face jail time and/or substantive monetary fines. And the national police has been deployed to “hunt, arrest, and punish” individuals who upload falsities and pernicious rumors.

Advocates believe eliminating anonymity will discourage cyber-bullying and cyber-terrorism, while critics argue that the legislation threatens freedom of speech and privacy.

Many also accuse President Lee Myungbak and his party of seeking to control the Internet to suppress public opposition to his policies, such as the resumption of beef imports from the U.S. and the free trade agreement negotiated with the Bush administration.

But Mr. Lee’s administration is not the first to push for Internet controls. Government efforts began under his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, the “progressive” whose election victory in 2002 was due in part to Internet mobilization of supporters. In 2005, both the ruling Uri Party and the opposition GNP supported the first attempt by the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC) to require real names and resident registration numbers (akin to the Social Security number in the U.S.) for online postings. And Yahoo Korea, Naver, and Daum—the major online outlets—found that a majority of those polled also supported the real name system. The government and people were responding to the proliferation of cyber crimes. And in the fall of 2007, MIC made plans to permit the use of registered mobile-phone numbers or personal identification numbers (PINs) rather than the resident registration number in order to protect Internet users from cyber scams and the “leakage” of personal information.

Certainly, Internet culture in Korea is like the Wild Wild West, chaotic, and something of a free-for-all. It is an extension of “street politics” that has characterized Korean politics for decades. From the 1960s to the 1980s, people spilled out onto the streets to fight for democracy, and the habit of hurling political grievances, opinions and insults in public has continued since democratization. Not only common citizens but elected officials also regularly bombard streets and cyberspace to push their positions and oppose others’. Some Korean legislators have become notorious for using their own Web sites to skewer one another.

Regardless of good intentions to reduce or prevent Internet abuse, the Lee government’s current plans to contain the Internet by making online expression potentially criminal and punitive do not make sense in a modern democracy. Add to that the fact that no government can really control cyberspace. There is already a history of government control over political expression through the Internet. During the closing months of the last presidential campaign, the National Election commission had prohibited online postings that criticized the candidates. The penalty, if found guilty, was up to three years in prison or a 30 million won fine ($33,000). Many in Korea believed that the regulation had suppressed “Internet democracy,” especially in a society where online news access has overtaken traditional print media.

Improving laws on slander, libel and harassment, rather than tightening government control of the Internet, may be a more sensible way to hold online abusers accountable. But civic education, from elementary school on up, about personal responsibility in all areas of public life, not just the Internet, is urgently needed. In Korea (and elsewhere), many Internet users just scream at or condemn others. But blurting out words does not equal democratic participation. Democratic life requires learning how to deliberate on one’s own and with others by consuming and creating information with discipline and discernment. Fostering the deliberative process and constructive debate can make a big difference between democracy and chaos.


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