Suicide spurs bid to regulate the net in South Korea
(B. J. Lee, Newsweek Web Exclusive, Oct 15, 2008)
Choi Jin Sil had a lot to live for. She was one of South Korea's hottest movie stars, and the mother of two young children. But the tides of public opinion can turn quickly and mercilessly"especially in cyberspace. In late September, an employee at a Seoul securities house began posting rumors about Choi in an online chat room. She accused Choi of being a ruthless loan shark responsible for the suicide of a down-on-his-luck actor who had amassed over $2 million in debts. Within days, the rumors had spread to hundreds of thousands of chat room users who posted vicious attacks on Choi's morals and character. Although the rumors were completely fabricated, the chat room condemnation was more than Choi could take. "I am lonely and I am ostracized," she wrote in her suicide note found on October 2. "I cannot even breathe."
Unfortunately, Choi's suicide is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of South Korea's growing problem with insidious chat-room activity. Considered the world's most wired nation, almost every South Korean household is equipped with broadband Internet service. It has long boasted a vibrant Internet culture where information and opinions are exchanged freely. But this freedom combined with a staunch cultural emphasis on "saving face" has proven a dangerous mix. Nearly 200,000 cyber-violence cases were reported last year, up almost 50 percent from a year earlier. Choi's death, in addition to several other high-profile cases, has sparked a heated debate over whether cyberspace should be regulated to prevent libel and protect privacy"even if it means imposing limits on freedom of speech.
Choi is the most well-known victim of chat room violence in South Korea, but she was not the first. Last year popular singer, Yoo Na, took her own life after accusations that she had gotten cosmetic surgery went viral. Early this month, immediately after Choi's death, two more celebrities committed suicide. They had been blasted in cyberspace because of their alleged homosexuality, which is still frowned upon by mainstream Korean society. Cyber attacks can spread like wildfire, bringing down an entire career in mere days. Those who depend on public support for their livelihoods"such as actors and politicians"are particularly vulnerable. "Our Internet culture is more violent and vicious than most other countries," says Yun Young Chul, a communication professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "People don't respect each other in cyber space."
Even ordinary people can fall prey to cyber attacks. In 2005, a young male was attacked for allegedly ditching his pregnant girlfriend who later killed herself. The Internet attacks against him turned into an angry witch hunt. Through Korea's well-developed social networking websites, attackers found out every detail about his life"his name, address, employer and even the name of the college he was attending at night. They called him a "shameless criminal," waged a campaign to boycott the products of his company and staged candlelight vigils at his college campus. He had to quit his job and live in self-imposed exile for months. He later sued the instigators and the portals that carried the information on libel charges and won in an appeal court in July.
Ironically, Korea's growing Internet problems stem from its strength in information technology. Local portal sites such as Daum and Naver exert enormous influence on society as they nearly monopolize forums for public debates. Most Koreans get first-hand information from portals rather than media companies as the former attracts users through powerful search engines and deep data and news archives. But portals in Korea are generally lax about regulating the content and length of user comments in a bid to promote more lively debates. As a result, portals often touch off hot public controversies that affect the entire society. In spring, a portal debate site named Agora helped instigate months of huge street protests in downtown Seoul against a government decision to resume imports of U.S. beef that critics claimed were prone to mad cow disease. When the protests grew into a public campaign to impeach President Lee Myung Bak, he scaled down his plan for U.S. beef imports and emphatically apologized to the public.
Against this backdrop, Korea's ruling Grand National Party is spearheading a move to toughen laws on Internet chat room abuses. Backed broadly by conservative older lawmakers who are increasingly wary of growing Internet abuses by technology-savvy youngsters, the ruling party is currently proposing a new measure requiring real names in more chat room postings and replies"an idea designed to track and punish malicious cyber attackers. Under current law, websites with more than 300,000 visits per day are required to demand real names but smaller sites are exempt, leading to frequent abuses there under pseudonyms. The ruling party is also moving to enact a new law allowing prosecutors to press online libel charges without the consent of victims. Hong Jun Pyo, floor leader of the Grand National Party describes the initiatives as an attempt to "keep cyberspace from becoming a public toilet wall."
Backed generally by younger voters, the opposition Democratic Party and liberal civic organizations are against the idea of imposing new regulations on self-expression in cyberspace. They claim that libel can be prevented using the existing criminal laws, and argue that additional regulations will discourage free speech. "There is a limit on using law to make the Internet space more civil," Suh Gap Won, an opposition lawmaker, said during last week's parliamentary meeting. "It cannot be done without a rise in citizens' ethics." The opposition camp also argues the government move toward additional regulations is politically motivated. Roh Eun Ha, a vice spokesperson of the Democratic Party, said the move is designed to suppress "the Internet public opinion critical of the government," adding that it will face "an online revolt."
The death of Korea's "national star" has tipped public opinion in favor of instituting tougher regulations against cyber violence and libel. In a recent survey by a local broadcasting station, 63 percent welcomed the real-name system for Internet postings and replies, while only 24 percent opposed it. In the same survey, 55 percent supported the enactment of a cyber insult law. As Koreans flood chat rooms to mourn Choi and discuss how to prevent cyber violence in the future, perhaps they will discover that words not only have the power to harm, but sometimes they also have the power to heal.
Korean Star’s Suicide Reignites Debate on Web Regulation
(By CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, October 13, 2008)
SEOUL " Choi Jin-sil, a movie star, was the closest thing South Korea had to a national sweetheart.
So when Ms. Choi, 39, was found dead in her apartment on Oct. 2 in what the police concluded was a suicide, her grief-stricken homeland sought an answer to why the actress had chosen to end her life.
The police, the media and members of Parliament immediately pointed fingers at the Internet. Malicious online rumors led to Ms. Choi’s suicide, the police said, after studying memos found at her home and interviewing friends and relatives.
Those online accusations claimed that Ms. Choi, who once won a government medal for her savings habits, was a loan shark. They asserted that a fellow actor, Ahn Jae-hwan, was driven to suicide because Ms. Choi had relentlessly pressed him to repay a $2 million debt.
Public outrage over Ms. Choi’s suicide gave ammunition to the government of President Lee Myung-bak, which has long sought to regulate cyberspace, a major avenue for antigovernment protests in South Korea.
Earlier this year, the Lee government was reeling after weeks of protests against beef imports from the United States. Vicious antigovernment postings and online rumors on the dangers of lifting the ban on American beef fueled the political upheaval, which forced the entire cabinet to resign.
In a monthlong crackdown on online defamation, 900 agents from the government’s Cyber Terror Response Center are scouring blogs and online discussion boards to identify and arrest those who “habitually post slander and instigate cyber bullying.”
Hong Joon-pyo, floor leader of the governing Grand National Party, commented, “Internet space in our country has become the wall of a public toilet.”
In the National Assembly, Ms. Choi’s suicide set the country’s rival parties on a collision course over how to regulate the Web. The governing party is promoting a law to punish online insults; the opposition parties accuse the government of trying to “rule cyberspace with martial law.”
The opposition says that cyberspace violence is already dealt with under existing laws against slander and public insults. But the government says that a tougher, separate law is necessary to punish online abuse, which inflicts quicker and wider damage on victims.
To battle online harassment, the government’s Communications Commission last year ordered Web portals with more than 300,000 visitors a day to require its users to submit their names and matching Social Security numbers before posting comments.
The police reported 10,028 cases of online libel last year, up from 3,667 reported in 2004.
Harassment in cyberspace has been blamed for a string of highly publicized suicides. Ms. Choi made headlines when she married a baseball player, Cho Sung Min, in 2000. But tabloids and Web bloggers were relentless in criticizing her when the marriage soured and she fought for custody of her two children.
TV producers and commercial sponsors dropped her. The general sentiment was that her career was over.
But in 2005, she made a comeback with a hugely popular soap opera called “My Rosy Life.” In it, she dropped her cute-girl image and played a jilted wife who throws a kick at her errant husband, but reconciles with him when she learns she has terminal cancer.
This year, she broke another taboo by successfully petitioning a court to change the surname of her two children to her own.
But in an interview with MBC-TV in July, which was broadcast after her death, she said she “dreaded” the Internet, where posters had insulted her for being a single, divorced mother. The police said she had been taking antidepressants since her divorce.
In South Korea, volunteer counselors troll the Internet to discourage people from using the Web to trade tips on how to commit suicide and, in some cases, how to form suicide pacts.
“We have seen a sudden rise in copycat suicides following a celebrity death,” said Jeon Jun-hee, an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Mental Health Center, which runs a suicide prevention hot line. Mr. Jeon said the hot line had received 60 calls a day, or twice the usual number, since Ms. Choi’s suicide.
Online anonymity hotly debated in South Korea
(TMC News, October 16, 2008)
Whether to continue to guarantee online anonymity is being hotly debated in South Korea, regarded as one of the world's most wired, tech-savvy countries, folowing the suicide of an iconic actress.
Earlier this month, South Korea's celebrity Choi Jin-sil killed herself after online rumors circulated that she was involved in the death of a fellow actor, who some gossipers claimed had borrowed a large amount of money from Choi.
Opinion leaders and politicians blamed the Internet as the source of the malicious rumors and has since used the case to demand that online anonymity be banned.
"We will press hard to pass the Cyber Defamation Law and the real-name system," Hong Joon-pyo, the ruling Grand National Party's floor leader, told reporters last week. "It is wrong to neglect the fact that violence is rampant online, due to anonymity."
There have been similar calls for stronger control of the online community, probably the most active and powerful public medium in South Korea.
Spurred by postings on the open bulletin at Daum, one of the major Internet portals here, South Koreans took to the streets for months earlier this year to protest the government decision to resume U.S. beef imports.
Daum's bulletin served as the main stage where its visitors posted what they knew or believed to be the facts about the dangers of consuming U.S. beef amid mad cow disease scare.
The public anger and pressure eventually forced President Lee Myung-bak to apologize twice and to reopen beef negotiations with the U.S.
Although some online bloggers questioned the intentions and accuracy of those postings, they were accused of rejecting majority opinion.
"These days, Internet users tend to be too lazy to sift out the truth from lies. When a lie is accepted as the truth by a majority, it spreads in geometric progression," said Won In-kun, an online blogger in his 20's.
"If one writes on the Internet or forwards what someone else wrote, he or she needs to be held responsible for the action," Won said. "If anonymity is banned, people will be more responsible on what they post online."
What's ironic is that some Internet users,who held actress Choi accountable for the death of actor Ahn Jae-hwan, are now attacking online the person accused of putting up the first posting about the alleged link between the two.
Only known by her last name Paik, the accused recently quit her job at a Seoul securities firm after her identity and photographs were exposed online, by anonymous posters.
Paik was questioned by investigators soon after Choi's suicide and ultimately indicted for defamation.
"They (netizens) don't stop. They seem to have forgotten what drove Choi to commit a suicide. They are caught in a circle of witch-hunting," said 31-year old office worker, Kim Se-hee.
"If Paik is really responsible for spreading the rumor, she will be punished by law," she said.
According to a report released last week by the Supreme Court and Ministry of Justice, 1,852 people were sued for libel or slander and were taken to court in 2007 alone, an increase of 17 percent from 1,583 in 2006.
But anonymity on the Internet is also credited with having helped establish democracy in the country.
"I admit that there are downsides to the anonymity, but at the same time, it gave the underprivileged a chance to raise their voice," said Park Jun-chul, a college student.
"If there is no anonymity, not so many people will risk saying what is really happening at work places, schools, or in the society," he said.
Yun Hyun-shik, a policy adviser for minor opposition New Progressive Party, argued prohibiting anonymity goes against the very nature of the Internet.
"Anonymity is a unique characteristic of the online community. Denying it is a denial of the Internet itself," he said.
Yun said there are already laws in place that can punish online defamation.
"The true nature of the problem is being distorted when the anonymity issue is blamed wholesale for the recent incident," Yun said, referring to Choi's suicide.
Besides, not allowing anonymity could hurt innocent people wrongly targeted just because they have same names as those under suspicion, he said.