South Korea considering closer watch on Internet after mass protests

By: yushu on 24 June 2008

After weeks of tumultuous protests inspired largely by South Korea’s young netizens, this country, one of the most wired and technology savvy in the world, is considering new ways to monitor the Internet.

In April, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to resume US beef imports quickly ignited a national web protests among young people and led to widespread fears of mad cow disease. It fast became a month-long series of street demonstrations that have been difficult for Lee’s government to cope with. In past two months, Lee’s fledgling administration was beleaguered by a spate of unconfirmed cyberspace rumors and his public approval ratings plunged below 20 percent.

Last week, President Lee called for the Internet to “be a space of trust”, and warned that “the spread of false and incorrect information through the Internet and spam email is threatening the people’s rational thinking and mutual trust.” But he did not mention the protests against him.

Although President Lee ruled out any intention to censor cyberspace, the Korea Communications Commission said it would consider strengthening its identity verification system, introduced last year, to curb cyber bullying. For example, users may be required to verify their identity, or be asked to register nickname, when they post comments or participate in online discussion. And portal operators must disclose identities of cyber attackers if victims want to sue for libel or infringement of privacy.

Admittedly, netizens are often inspired to protest by misleading information in cyberspace and some web activities are described as akin to cyber terrorism. It is necessary to discourage cyber bulling and online malicious messages. However, due to the unclear definition of cyber bullying, attacks, and malicious online messages, South Korea’s new regulations may suppress legitimate online speech and violate the freedom of speech. Even if the government has the legitimate rights to deal with rumors, how do we ensure these regulations rights will not be abused? In fact, in order to restrict cyber bullying or other irrational online behaviors, the best way may be self-regulation, a set of norms for cyber behavior. Tim O’Reilly, one of the web’s most influential thinkers, noted that “I do think we need some code of conduct around what is acceptable behavior, I would hope that it doesn't come through any kind of [legal/government] regulation it would come through self-regulation.”