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Free Speech in South Korea -- is the Internet a poison or cure?

April 14, 2009 _ 16:00 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

In the lead-up to the broadcast tonight of our FRONTLINE/World program on South Korea's wired culture, several related stories have appeared in the news the last several days. They concern freedom of speech on the Internet -- something that us in the U.S. probably take for granted.


090413_p03_18.jpgMost recently, the prosecution of well-known blogger Park Dae-sung proposed an 18-month prison term for him on Monday. Park, who blogs under the name "Minerva," was indicted in January on charges of "spreading false information through online articles to destabilize the foreign exchange market." Minerva grew famous for predicting the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the fall of the South Korean Won against the dollar last year, but he also wrote over 200 blog posts criticizing the South Korean government's economic policies. The Korean Times explains:

The community college graduate has been touted as an "oracle" among liberal citizens and civic groups, while conservative pro-government people criticized him for undermining President Lee's leadership, calling him a "doomsayer." His arrest triggered debates on freedom of speech in cyber space, drawing keen attention from the international media.

Korea Times.jpgIn the blog postings that the government contested, Minerva claimed the government would suspend the exchange of foreign currencies and later that the finance ministry banned major banks from purchasing U.S. currency in order to top the Won's fall against the dollar. The finance ministry denies this but information later emerged suggesting the government had intervened in the currency market. Some have suggested that the government's biggest problem with Minerva was his anonymity:

Minerva is a typical case of selective prosecution. It seems likely that the major problem that the prosecution had with Minerva is that Minerva never revealed that he was not a professor, politician, government official, or economist for a think tank. It seems that the prosecution believes that hiding under the cloak of anonymity may have contributed to some of his doom and gloom predictions from coming true. His notoriety and the rumors that he may be one of Korea's "elite" may have contributed to the prosecutors' decision to indict. Most netizens involved in this type of commentary are not investigated by the prosecution, mainly because of the lack of notoriety of the commentator and the lack of pressure on the prosecution to indict.

This brings us to the next item of news to come out of South Korea. Also on Monday, it was reported that Google has provided South Korean YouTube users a way around the country's real-name verification system, or Cyber Defamation Law, which requires users to submit their real name and national ID card number when posting content on websites with over 100,000 unique visitors per day. The Korean government has promoted using real names on the Internet since 2002, but the system didn't become law until 2005 when some polls showed between 73 and 87 percent of Koreans favoring the policy. Its main purpose is to prevent anonymous online slander and "cyber bullying," which became a national issue with several celebrity suicides culminating with famous actress Choi Jin-sil, who killed herself apparently in reaction to online rumors about her.


The real-name verification system has undergone several changes since 2005, mostly to increase the number of websites required to abide by it, and this latest expansion took effect on April 1. Jean K. Min of Korea's successful citizen journalism site OhMyNews sums up Google's reaction to this on his blog:

YouTube basically told the Korean government to "bug off" when it announced that it would reject a local law that requires registered users to prove their identity when they upload videos and post comments. "You will not be required to verify your identity," it said on its company blog Thursday, since "we have voluntarily disabled comments and video uploads when using YouTube in Korea with the Korea country setting." Korean YouTube users, however, will still be allowed to do their usual business in YouTube's other global sites without giving out their identity, YouTube hinted blatantly, "by choosing a non-Korean country setting from the top of any YouTube page." Only thing they will need to do is to set the language to Korean, which would allow them a snap detour around the governmental restriction.

Jean explains the significance of the decision to Koreans:

For many Koreans, long proud of its status as one of the world's most wired countries, it is such an unpleasant turn of events that their country is suddenly being compared with China and North Korea as one of the worst countries in terms of the Internet censorship. Reporters without Borders (RSF), however, has recently rated Internet censorship in South Korea as "substantial" indeed, putting the country right behind "13 enemies of the Internet," which includes North Korea.
On the YouTube blog, scores of Korean Netizens left mostly complimentary comments, praising YouTube for its "courageous decision" to stand up against the government. Some said they would even seek "online political asylum" in YouTube and persuade others to follow their move, accusing the incumbent government of "tyranny."

In addition to strengthening the real-name verification system on April 1, the Korean government also passed a new "three strikes and you're out" anti-piracy law that could strip Internet users of their connection if they are caught repeatedly uploading copyrighted content without permission. This new regulation has many Internet companies worried:

According to the new law, the minister of culture, sports and tourism is granted the authority to order the closing of online message boards or suspending individual Internet accounts with or without requests from copyright holders. "Even for a big company like Naver (, it is virtually impossible for Web portals to totally filter illegal content when there are millions of postings coming up everyday. And I am talking about companies that spend massive amounts of money to monitor copyright violations and hire hundreds of monitoring personnel," said an employee from one of the country's largest Internet companies who didn't want to be named.

Others have identified more potential problems with the proposed system.

Lose internet connection.jpg

It all adds up to a growing mountain of regulations that curtail free speech on the Internet in a democracy that prides itself on being a leader of the high-tech world. The background to all of this is that many say President Lee Myung-bak is reacting to the massive hit in popularity he took in a controversy over U.S. beef imports last summer. Tens of thousands organized online and rallied in the streets to protest Lee's decision to resume imports of U.S. beef over the age of 30 months. The rallies were sparked by false online rumors that the beef would contain mad cow disease.

All of this reminds us of a speech that President Lee gave at the OECD Ministerial Meeting on the future of the internet economy held in Seoul last June. In the speech, Lee says (and this is from our translator, not the official transcript):

Now, the Internet is faced with new challenges and tasks. The Internet should be a space of trust. If trust is not guaranteed, instead of the internet acting as a 'medicine' it could become a 'poison.'

Ohmynews.jpgEssentially, he is using the old expression, "poison or cure." Lee is talking about "the spread of computer viruses, hacking, cyber terrorism and the leakage of personal information," but we think he might as well be talking about democracy. For Korea's democracy, and those everywhere, the Internet can be either a poison or a cure. On the one hand, the Internet played a key role in Roh Moo-hyun's 2002 victory in Korea's presidential race. He was even known as the "World's first Internet president." Likewise, the Internet has allowed citizen journalism to flourish in South Korea at OhMyNews where "every citizen is a reporter."

On the other hand, the news of the last several days reminds us that the Internet can also be used as a poison for free speech and democracy.



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posted February 2, 2010

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