Suicide Spurs Web Regulation in South Korea

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 more than $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 diary. "I cannot even breathe." She was found dead in the bathroom of her Seoul home on Oct. 2, an apparent suicide.

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 cyberviolence 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, Yuni, 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 for their sexuality--one was openly gay and the other a transsexual--which is still considered highly controversial by mainstream Korean society. Cyberattacks 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 cyberspace."

Even ordinary people can fall prey to cyberattacks. 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 Web sites, 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 appeals 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 firsthand 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 cyberattackers. Under current law, Web sites 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 cyberviolence 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.