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[VIEWPOINT]Bringing order to cyberspace

July 19,2005
More and more people are supporting the idea of requiring the use of real names on the Internet. In a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Information and Communication and Internet portal sites, 73 percent of Internet users agreed that real names should be used. The issue had been discussed before, but this is the first time that support for real name use has prevailed. What has brought Internet users together behind this idea?
Cyberspace is a domain of anonymity and secrecy. It is unique territory that allows for more freedom to experiment than “offline” reality does. Korea has a world-class high-speed Internet network, and Koreans are known to use the Internet more than anyone else in the world. The country’s Internet infrastructure and Net-savvy population are new sources of national competitiveness.
But at the same time, the number of online crimes reported to the National Police Agency is rising. In 2002, 118,000 such cases were reported; the number rose to 165,000 in 2003 and well over 200,000 in 2004. Many more unreported cybercrimes must have been committed. In other words, the negative effects of Korea’s Internet use are rapidly growing along with the positive ones.
The sociologist Erving Goffman characterized modern social behavior as having both a stage and a backstage area. The stage is where behavior is strongly influenced by social obligations, such as established norms and roles. Backstage is where such obligations are relaxed. Cyberspace is a lot like this social backstage area.
In reality, of course, an individual moves back and forth between the stage and the backstage area. The more complex a life is, the more important the role of the backstage becomes, because people need to relieve tension and recharge their energy. The latest problem is that in cyberspace, a “backstage” area meant for release and relaxation, a new kind of tension and instability is developing. And distrust among many people who spend a substantial amount of their time on a computer is growing.
Adopting a “real name system” will not completely dispel this tension, instability and distrust. We are still not sure about the specifics of the plan that the Ministry of Information and Communication wants to implement, or the extent to which it would require the use of real names on the Internet. But whatever its extent, whether it be a full-scale system or a partial one, it will do a great deal to prevent reckless behavior online.
The opponents of the proposed system argue that the use of real names is not required in any other country in the world. They also say that since many organizations and companies with an online presence require the use of real names now, such a system virtually exists already.
But Koreans use community sites and bulletin boards more actively than any other people in the world do. Information spreads through them at remarkable speed. We are in a unique situation that cannot be objectively compared to that of other countries. And while Web sites do increasingly require the use of real names, there are still plenty of ways for non-members to gain access to these sites. If a dynamic IP address is used instead of a static one, it takes an average of a month to identify the user. So systematic improvement is needed.
Commenting on South Korea’s now world-famous “dog poop girl,” who didn’t clean up after her pup on the subway, the writer Howard Rheingold, author of “Smart Mobs,” said that we now have to be more worried about our neighbors than about Big Brother watching. The nature of surveillance has changed. If we want to keep private information from spreading, new social norms are necessary.
A real name system can keep us in check and make us take responsibility. Cyberspace, after all, is not some otherworldly domain, but the place where we spend much of our daily lives.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily stafff.


by Bae Young


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