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 Thursday, August 17, 2006

The International Herald Tribune has an article about the growing problem of "cyberviolence" in South Korea, which has one of the world's most developed Internet communities:

'Complaints filed with the government's Korea Internet Safety Commission more than doubled to 42,643 last year from 18,031 in 2003. Women have reported sexual harassment. A 16-year- old schoolgirl accused of informing on an abusive teacher ran away after her photos and insults were splashed on her school Web site. A singer struggled with rumors that she was a man. Twist Kim, a singer and comedian, had a nervous breakdown after pornographic Web sites proliferated under his name, as if he had created them, causing television stations to spurn him.

In most countries, Internet users oppose government attempts to censor the Internet. In South Korea, however, in both government-funded and private surveys, a majority of people support official intervention to check unbridled freedom of speech on the Internet.

A poll taken in November showed that nearly one of 10 South Koreans from 13 to 65 said they had experienced cyberviolence.

The problem in South Korea may presage what will happen in other countries, according to the authorities, who have begun cracking down on the problem.

"In the past few years, the Internet has grown in South Korea explosively," said Kim Sung Ho, secretary general at Kinternet, a lobby of domestic portals. "The Internet community has developed faster and stronger in South Korea than elsewhere. So we are struggling with its side effects earlier than other nations."

Since last year, dozens of people have been indicted on charges of criminal contempt or slander for writing or spreading malicious online insults about victims like Kim Myong Jae. They face fines of as much as 2 million won, or $2,067.

This month, the National Assembly will debate a bill that would require the nation's 30 major Internet portals and newspaper Web sites to confirm the identities of visitors before allowing them to use bulletin boards, the main channel of cyberviolence.

"The idea is to make people feel more responsible for what they are posting on the Net," said Oh Sang Kyoon, a director at the Ministry of Information and Communications. "Victims cannot live a normal life. They quit jobs and run away from society. They even flee the country. It's like lynching victims in a 'people's court on the Web.'"

Some critics question whether such a law would solve the problem. Cyberviolence, they say, has been increasing even though most of the country's major Web sites are already applying the policy.

"This is violating privacy in the name of protecting it," said Oh Byoung Il, director general at jinbo.net, a civic group. "It discourages anonymous whistle- blowers. It impedes the free flow of communication, the soul of the Internet."

Official interference will also discriminate in favor of foreign portals like Google, said Kim of Kinternet. For instance, when users search for "sex" in a South Korean portal, they must first prove they are adults by supplying personal data - a requirement that does not apply to the Korean-language Google, which operates with an overseas server.

But Kim Myong Jae condemned the portals as willing accomplices in online mob attacks. While painfully slow to respond to victims' complaints, Kim said, the portals - the largest of which, naver.com, attracts 15 million users a day - highlight real-time lists of the most- clicked-on news, thus helping spread sensational, and often libelous, items.

Kim said he had filed suit against the nation's top four portals: Naver, Daum, Yahoo! Korea and Nate.

And portals say they are now screening their contents more vigorously. "Rather than being an arena for sound debate, the Web bulletin boards have to some extent become a place for verbal defecation," said Choi Soo Yeon, a naver.com spokeswoman. "We have 300 monitors who work round the clock to delete abusive and defamatory language." But ultimately, the portals say, the users who post on the Web should be responsible for content.

South Korea saw an explosion of Internet users as the country emerged from decades of military rule, and citizens jumped on the new technology as a way of expressing long-suppressed views. About 33 million South Koreans - out of a population of 48 million - use the Internet, most of them with broadband connections. And many of them are not shy about their feelings.

News articles on portals or newspaper Web sites often are accompanied by feedback sections, where readers comments. Some news articles attract thousands of entries, ranging from thoughtful comments to raving obscenities. When suspicions first emerged last year that the cloning expert Hwang Woo Suk had faked his groundbreaking work, few dared to speak in public against the man lionized as a hero. Scientists, who unveiled evidence of fabrication through anonymous postings, brought about Hwang's downfall.

One of the most famous victims of online mob rule was the so-called "dog-poop girl." A cellphone photograph of a girl who failed to clean up after her dog in a subway car was posted on the Internet. For weeks, people pursued her relentlessly; the girl reportedly dropped out of school as a result.

To Kim Myong Jae, it was familiar. "Two months after I became the target, I visited a plaza near my old company. I dressed differently. Still a person reported my appearance on the Web, how I looked and how that person felt sick to see me," Kim said. "It's a handicap I may have to carry for a long time."'