A governmental mistake
Fears of online surveillance have spread after South Korean state prosecutors announced that they will keep constant watch over Internet and mobile platforms to rein in and punish the spread of false information and defamation even if no one presses charges. Prosecutors said the move was necessary to bolster integrity in social networking and protect individuals’ dignity. But the rumors of cyber spying and possible censorship have caused Korean users to flee local mobile platforms and switch to foreign ones, raising the possibility of serious damage to the business and reputation of the domestic IT sector. We will look at the recent spook in the online industry and the cyber asylum phenomenon.
To spread false information and cause someone pain with libelous statements is clearly an act of violence. To inflict emotional, physical or financial distress on someone cannot be pardoned, even in the name of freedom of expression. But did things have to be done in this way? A public policy can cause unnecessary ill effects if it does not follow just procedures.
The incident started with a comment made by the president in a cabinet meeting on Sept. 16. She did not hide her annoyance at recent rumors about her whereabouts on the day of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry. The expression of her personal views was inappropriate for a cabinet meeting held to discuss state affairs. She said the rumors about her were a grave defamation of state and national dignity that could divide society. She lionized a private affair to fuel a political agenda. The president also needs privacy and individual dignity. Her damaged pride and anger is understandable. But she should not have commanded the Justice Department and state prosecution to deal more aggressively with cyber libel out of anger. It seems as if the president was using state authority for personal revenge.
Accidents can always happen from misjudgments and irrational decisions. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office hurriedly held a meeting after the president’s complaint and announced it will launch an investigative team in charge of hunting down defamatory statements and posts. It said it will keep an around-the-clock watch for defamation and rumors regardless of requests by victims. The prosecution’s plan to preempt and prevent libelous acts before they are made does not make sense. A third party cannot investigate defamation if a charge and suit have not been filed. It can only end up doing more harm to the victim. Millions of people use the Internet and mobile messaging platforms every day. How can a state authority keep tabs on every one of them? It neither has the technology, budget nor human resources to do so. It is a vain campaign and a mismanagement of resources and costs. It could mean that the prosecution will be primarily defending the president and the government. But according to Supreme Court rulings, the government institutions, policies and policymakers are not subject to defamation. If the prosecution aims to primarily monitor slander against public figures or institutions, does that mean it exists to merely to defend the reputations of people with power?
Victims often arise from unexpected places. Amid fears of censorship and reports of confiscations of chats involving a dissident party member, KakaoTalk, the dominant messaging app, became a suspected hotbed for prosecutors’ surveillance. Both the prosecution and company vehemently denied the rumors. But the controversy snowballed after a senior executive of Kakao admitted that the company must comply with the state authority’s demand. Users began to abandon their local accounts and seek cyber asylum in foreign online messaging apps and platforms. Regardless of the validity of the suspicions, the country’s top IT company lost credibility overnight, accused of selling customers’ information to state authority. The company, which recently became one of the country’s largest technology enterprises through a merger, is in its worst management crisis. The state has become as infamous as Russia and China for spying on civilians.
It’s best to save words when anger arises and watch behavior when greed sprouts. A move to reign in defamation ended up hurting a corporation and the state’s reputation. The Internet is a complicated world where a small flutter of butterfly wings can create a typhoon. If the state wants to help, it should stay out of it.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
The author is a professor of the School of Communication at Sookmyung Women’s Univeristy.
BY Ahn Min-ho