In 2002, Korean democracy made headlines around the world when an unknown entrepreuneur launched the world’s first citizen journalism web site OhMyNews, which helped deliver the highest chair in the country to the underdog liberal candidate Roh Moo-hyun. Roh won the extremely contested election with just half a million votes, through an active online campaign supported and driven by an idealistic and net-savvy youth.
Since then, the Korean government has had an extremely hands-on approach to governing online expression. South Korean bureaucracy dealing with controlling online discourse has ballooned since 2003. After several permutations, South Korea currently has two agencies that monitor online activity during elections, the Internet Election News Deliberation Commission (IENDC) that oversees online press, and the Cyber Censorship Team (CCT), which monitors user-generated content and non-media web sites. The agencies have the right to remove content at their discretion. During the 2007 elections, the two agencies removed over 100,000 blog posts, comments, articles and 65,000 videos online.
In 2003, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) struck back from losing the presidential race by enacting a new law which required online users to verify their real identities before posting comments on election-related web sites. The legislation’s stated goals were to to promote responsible online discourse and to protect the privacy of candidates, and it has accomplished its purpose to a limited extent. Yet the greater underlying political motive is clear to see — the conservative party that relies on older, less internet-savvy Koreans wanted to limit the influence of online media on election results. In 2007, an election year, the proliferation of anonymous online slander was the stated cause for extending the real-name system to web sites with over 300,000 daily visits.
Two major incidents in 2008 — the suicide of national darling Choi Jin Sil, and the national outrage over President Lee’s decision to resume imports of American beef — prompted the government to again strengthen the real-name system. In the first incident, hundreds of thousands of online users had rumored that Choi was a loan shark who had prompted a fellow actor to commit suicide. As a response to the incident, Korea’s Cyber Terror Response Center launched a one-month investigation into online slander, engaging 900 investigators to crack down on rumors on the Internet as well as on cell phones.
In the latter incident, the entire cabinet of President Lee’s administration resigned following 100 days of protests with coordinated online action that engaged the country in a torrid debate. The portal Daum saw its page views jump from 40 million to 200 million when a TV show had claimed that Koreans are 94 percent more likely to contract a human form of mad cow disease from importing American beef.
The Korea Communications Commission (KCC) then began to criminalize web sites that failed to remove slanderous and false information, subjecting them to a fine of up to 30 million won, or even shutting them down.
The following year in 2009, the real-name system was extended to web sites that received over 100,000 web sites per day. As of last year, this law applied to about 150 South Korean web sites.
The government’s efforts to control cyberspace have been formidable, but as a result of the real-name policy, South Korean web sites have become prime targets for hacking both from in and outside of the country. The number of hacking incidents reached a momentous level last year, as a series of high-profile cyber-attacks made it clear that the real-name system was untenable — the most notorious case being SK Communications’ SNS Cyworld, which leaked personal information of over 35 million Koreans, more than half of the national population. On the other hand, efforts to crack down on online discourse have been largely ineffective. In a KCC study, malicious comments accounted for 13.9 percent of all messages posted on Internet forums in 2007 but decreased only by 0.9 percentage points in 2008, a year after the regulation went into effect. The Korean government had in fact created a system which could easily be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians as well as ill-intended hackers, all in the name of public order.
The South Korean government also suffered an embarrassment when Google’s YouTube refused to comply to the real-name verification system in 2009. Stating that freedom of expression must be upheld on the internet, Google disabled video upload and comment functionalities from users accessing the site within S. Korea. Yet users only had to change their country setting in order to upload and comment on the site again, providing a legal loophole which set-off a wide debate within the country. The incident prompted the KCC to initiate a legal review, and after mulling over whether to punish Google or not, decided to exempt it from the real-name law, which added oil to the fire. Korean companies that have had to comply to the law — that had incurred web development, monitoring, and security costs — cited discrimination that put them at a competitive disadvantage to global companies.
Restrained online expression and lost profits aside, the GNP’s persistent efforts to control online discourse have taught a valuable lesson to a country that has grown too soon, too fast. Korea may be one of the most technologically sophisticated countries in the world, but its social customs are still dominated by traditional and conservative values. Perhaps you recall the story of the Dog Poop Girl, a Korean woman who fled her home-town after she was personally identified and vitrified online for refusing to clean up her dog’s remains in the Seoul subway. Koreans find it difficult to tolerate public humiliation — some prefer to kill themselves rather than face it (S. Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world). In a society where a rumor can drive a person to end his or her life, can opportunistic politicians be blamed for the consequences that the real-name system has brought Whether it be through lack of understanding of internet security or clannish politics, Koreans are learning the hard lesson that some things are better left unregulated, or in other words, free. A democracy obliges individual citizens to engage in critical thinking that can mitigate the effects of online instigations. Instead of suppressing and punishing citizen's rights to free speech and web sites that simply disseminate online discourse, the government should instead focus on promoting the individual civic responsibility to evaluate and counter potentially harmful information. Another step forward would be to nurture a culture that does not stigmatize people to the point they are driven to end their lives, yet another outdated Korean custom that has had to rely on community values rather than rule of law to ensure public order.
Korea is a land of many contrasts, and a democracy that's only 25 years old. In fifty years the country has gone from being one of the world’s most poorest to one of the most prosperous countries in the world through sheer will-power of its older generations that worked tirelessly to make it the country it is today. They have protected and passed on their most cherished values to the younger generations — the Korean youth is imbued with an innocence that makes K-Pop irresistible; and they are well-educated and equipped with modern tech — and their voices should not be suppressed. They are ushering in independent candidates like Park Won-soon — the new mayor of Seoul — who have vowed to clean up the political arena. The new Seoul mayor, like his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun who granted his first official interview to OhMyNews, also chose to conduct his entire inauguration ceremony online for the younger generations that voted him into office. The GNP, dusting-off from yet another hacking scandal that sought to compromise information which would aid Park, has recently promoted 28-year-old Lee Jun-seok in the party, a step in the right direction. The Democratic Unity Party has also announced it will promote young candidates.
Perhaps this affair will also serve as a lesson to other developing countries that are looking to leap ahead through modern technology. It’s in the nature of networked media to break down barriers — be they physical, cultural, or generational. On December 29, 2011, the KCC announced that it will phase out the real-name verification system by 2014. This time, web sites that do not remove resident registration IDs and other sensitive information will be fined. Moreover, online campaigning via social networking services will now be permitted regardless of election schedule.
We will be watching the state of Korean online democracy unfold as both parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for April and December this year, respectively.
My personal gratitude to the staff at OpenNet Initiative for their thorough research on South Korean internet-related infrastructure and institutions. Please email me your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.