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S.Korea aims to cool Internet rage attacks

Posted by iNext - 2006-03-13

Dog poop girl is infamous in South Korea.
 
The young woman was riding on the subway with her small dog. The dog defecated and she did not clean up after her pet.

Someone caught the incident in pictures shot with a mobile phone. The photos were posted on the Internet with a brief description of what took place and shortly thereafter "dog poop girl" became the most-searched phrase among South Korean Internet users.

The country is debating what needs to be done to protect privacy and free speech on the Internet while punishing people who commit libel and defamation in cyberspace.

South Koreans were shocked by the incident but they were also stunned by the Internet witch hunt that soon followed.

South Korea is the most wired country in the world and Internet witch hunts have been conducted with such ferocity that people have committed suicide, left the country in shame and taken new identities after being the subject of a cyber attack.

The campaigns play on one of the most sensitive issues in Korean society -- the feeling of shame. The close-knit nature of the society also means the campaigns can strike targets quickly.

With most households in the country connected by broadband, the campaigns can lead to collateral damage, as well as permanently staining the reputation of innocent people who have no time to respond effectively to the attacks.

In the case of dog poop girl, which took place last year, the Internet site of one university crashed when it was flooded with angry emails demanding the school take action against the young woman who had outraged so many.

The only problem was, the offender did not go to that school.

While those South Koreans who actively take part in public debate over the Internet -- they are dubbed "netizens" -- were searching for the identity of dog poop girl, innocent people were mistakenly identified and their reputations sullied.

"The Internet is turning the whole society into a kangaroo court," the Korea Herald newspaper wrote in an editorial.

DICTATORSHIP OF PUBLIC OPINION

Students have committed suicide after being relentlessly insulted by classmates over the Internet. Stars have left the country because of sexual scandals posted in cyberspace.

Shin Soung-sik is a prosecutor who specialises in cases of defamation and libel over Internet campaigns, and he said he had seen his share of postings that were vicious.

Shin noted free speech had been suppressed for decades when South Korea was under authoritarian rule, and now many saw the Internet as the best place to engage in public debate.

He said in many Asian societies, people generally frown on open confrontation and speaking out of turn. But when people are left to their own on the Internet, they can vent an enormous amount of pent-up anger.

A few netizens do not stop to see if the facts are right in launching campaigns meant to shame and defame, he said.

"This can lead to a dictatorship of public opinion," Shin said.

Seoul prosecutors brought their first cases of defamation earlier this year against people who posted messages on the Internet. They are using existing laws on defamation that can bring jail sentences and fines of up to 50 million won ($50,000).

Shin said prosecutors were careful to protect free speech, but there were instances where people posted information on the Internet that was clearly meant to harm.

PRESIDENT, PEOPLE, AND THE WEB

According to the Cyber Defamation and Sexual Violence Counselling Center, the number of victims of Internet harassment more than doubled in 2005 to 8,406, from 3,913 in 2004. Defamation cases tripled and sexual abuse over the Internet nearly doubled during the same period.

"Internet abuse often involves malicious writing, personal information being divulged and a reputation being lost in the blink of an eye," the victims' group said in an email reply to questions.

South Korea is also considering a law that would put an end to anonymous Internet postings as a way to cut down on attacks.

A spokesman for Naver, one of the country's major Internet portals,, said they had 160 people working 24 hours a day to remove postings that may cross the line.

While blogs may be sweeping through the West, South Korea has numerous Internet news services, which are often at the forefront on breaking news stories such as the stem cell science fraud scandal in the country.

President Roh Moo-hyun is known to surf the Web and often posts open letters on the Internet. He plans his first online debate with the public on March 23.

The Naver spokesman said what was happening in South Korea may follow in other places as broadband ended up in more homes.

As for dog poop girl, she and her pet seem to have dropped from sight a few months after their unexpected exposure.



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