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Internet and Identity in South Korea’s Popular Culture

Monday, April 4th, 2011
the internet is serious business

South Korea is a democratic nation, and is also a very technological nation. The Internet is a very large part of the country’s culture, and is at the forefront of determining what these two ideas mean together. South Korea has taken the somewhat controversial stance of requiring everyone who uses significant web sites in the country to verify their real name when registering at those web sites, which is a step further than any other country has yet to go. This has been in effect since 2007. Now, three years later, we can see what the reaction of the Korean public to the idea has been, and how it has affected life online.

But South Korea is not the only country to face making Internet-related decisions. Every national government is struggling with the implications of the Internet. North Korea is on one of the extremes of the scale, cutting off access to the Internet for everyone except the country’s leader and perhaps a few select high-level officials. Just a little below that type of extreme reaction is the country’s neighbor, China, which heavily censors the Internet at the deepest technological level it can in the name of harmony. On the other side of the spectrum are countries like Mexico and Mongolia, which have no Internet censorship at all. Unfortunately, most of the developed world, Korea included, has some form of Internet-related censorship, blocking their cultural bogeymen from access by the general public which is not technologically savvy. Australia has a blacklist of Internet sites that deal with pornographic materials. Brazil and much of Europe block sites related to racist topics such as neo-nazi sites. Even the United States has blocked web sites which have been used to infringe on copyrighted materials, and in a controversial move, the step has recently been taken to seize the domain names of those sites without judicial review. But South Korea is the only country which requires Internet users to identify themselves with their national ID number and real name before posting content on discussion forums or blogs.

How it works

The Korean government introduced the Acts on Limited Real-Name Verification in July 2007. This requires all government web sites and any private sector web site which has 100,000 or more users to collect the real names and national ID numbers of each user. The web site will keep this information in confidence and will only give it up to government agencies when a crime has been committed. Most crimes in this context would be libel, harassment, or presumably posting links to illegal content. The law was deemed as having a chilling effect on free speech in the democratic country. Furthermore, a famous invocation of the law was used to hunt down and arrest a semi-anonymous blogger on Korea’s famous web portal Daum. The Daum Agora, a nationally-famous discussion site, is where the average Korean user can go to discuss life, politics, and everything else. And in later 2008 and early 2009, it was also the place to go to get the latest economic predictions from the enigmatic and eerily prescient Minerva, an anonymous commenter who spoke about economic issues. Minerva became nationally famous by predicting the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the sharp decline of the Korean Won against the US Dollar at specific time points. The Lee Myung-bak administration put a stop to his fame and his economic predictions by tracking down his account and arresting him with the charge of spreading false rumors on the Internet.

One immediately thinks that if spreading false rumors on the Internet was a crime everywhere, most of the developed world would be in jail. This is just one of the problems with the online identity verification legislation in Korea, because the definitions for libel in Korea are saying things that can damage another person’s reputation or business, even if they are true. So not only can you not spread false rumors online, but you can also not spread true rumors, or report accurate facts, or presumably say anything that would hurt another person. Once again you can easily point out that if saying things that hurt another person online were a crime everywhere, the rest of the developed world that did not already get thrown in jail for spreading false rumors would join their rumor-mongering brethren soon, after they said something that hurt someone’s feelings in the comments underneath the news reports about the recent jailings.

After all, everybody knows how the discourse online goes. First, a relatively earnest journalist or blogger such as myself puts a bit of thought into a longer article such as this one. Then, if he’s lucky, it will attract the attention of several commenters. These commenters will proceed to grandstand extreme points of view, insult each others’ intelligence, question the educational level of anyone who disagrees with them, set up and knock down uncountable strawmen, and pander to the presumably enthralled crowd of years to come by typing up witty comebacks. It’s all in good fun and without such engaging discourse we would never have anything else to do at work. However, in Korea the careless commenter is a thing of the past, because the threat of incarceration has chilled the snark in their throats.

But is it all bad? If you take a look at any random thread of YouTube comments, you might think that maybe outlawing such banality might not be so bad. After all, nobody talks like that when other people are right in front of them. Only in the comforting embrace of anonymity does the offensive and tiring nature of people show itself online. This is the line of argument taken by several researchers in Korea on the effect of anonymity on cyberspace. For many researchers in Korea, the question becomes one of the plurality of identity.

And for some Internet researchers, this question of identity is a philosophical one. Descartes and Kant, two rationalist philosophers, believed that identity should be singular. They said that a plurality of identity only came about when individuals give in to temptation or desire. So having multiple identities, especially online, indicates that people are doing wrong. However, other philosophical disciplines disagree. Post-modern philosophers such as Kumar say that there are naturally many identities in an individual, that identity is fluid and shifting, fed by multiple sources and taking multiple forms. It seems that the Korean government has sided with the rationalists and not with the post-modernists, and has tried to impress this idea on the online population of Korea.

Representing the People

The freedom of speech is an important aspect of democracy, but another important aspect is the will of the people. When the two come into conflict, each democracy must decide for itself which one will win out. In light of this idea, one wonders what Korean people themselves think about the whole online identity policy three years after the law was passed. Yet the numbers are surprisingly in support of it. In a recent survey, Korean Internet users of all ages were asked if they had ever experienced victimization from malicious messages on Internet bulletin boards. Approximately 40% of all respondents said that they had. They were also asked if they believed that anonymity should be guaranteed on the Internet. Approximately 60% of respondents were in favor of guaranteeing anonymity. However, when asked if they supported restrictions on the freedom of expression on the Internet based on the situation and the subject, a surprising 80% of respondents agreed that some situations and some subjects should have restrictions of expression online.

Serious business

This might be related to the phenomenon that Korean citizens seem to take the Internet as much more serious business than other cultures. What people say online, even anonymously, has destroyed lives. In 2005 an anonymous Korean girl brought her dog into the subway. The dog then did what dogs do, and pooped on the subway floor. The girl didn’t choose to clean up the poop. Nobody around her did or said anything to her, but one person took a photo. Then they posted the photo online. Within the span of a week, she had been identified by her bag, her school was identified, her name, phone number, and job were all published online. Her life turned into a living hell as anonymous people harassed her day and night. She was publicly shamed on the Internet in outlandishly huge proportion to her offense, and in a very round-about way.

Also, a more serious Internet incident that caused Korean citizens to question their online behavior was the suicide of Korean pop star Yuni in 2007. She had gotten extensive plastic surgery which had not gone well, and her looks did not meet the expectations of her fans. Photos of her leaked online, leading thousands to compare her to Michael Jackson and say other unflattering things about her. She was found dead in her apartment at the age of 26.

So with the bad social consequences that seem to be happening in Korea based on careless words posted online, perhaps in this culture, at this point in time, it is in fact best to restrict the freedom of speech by requiring the true identities of everyone online to be tracked. Perhaps it will save the lives of a few more young actresses, or prevent the spotlight from shining too brightly on the infamous people of the week. And if the law saves even one life, it could very well be justified.

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