Slander cannot be toleratedFears 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.
The prosecution’s recent decision to investigate grave defamation cases against individuals in online or mobile platforms through permanent surveillance operations without any charges made has sparked a heated controversy. It frightened users of the dominant mobile messenger app KakaoTalk, operated by Daum Kakao, who migrated to foreign platforms en masse amid rumors that their communications were being watched by authorities around the clock. Daum Kakao is estimated to have lost 400,000 users, or 2 percent of its 35 million users in Korea, in just a week. The company hurriedly announced security plans to limit the amount of time that content is saved on its server to two or three days and guaranteed users their privacy. The company previously stored users’ conversations on its main server for five to seven days. But the damage has been done; users are still wary and anxious. Unless the prosecutors backtrack, the country’s online and IT competitiveness could be seriously impaired.
The heart of the problem is deep public suspicion of state authorities. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, where a new cyber defamation bureau has been established, repeatedly said they neither have a plan nor the technological ability to view private conversations on SNS platforms. But the public remains doubtful. Jitters escalated after prosecutors confiscated KakaoTalk chat records of Labor Party deputy leader Jung Jin-woo after acquiring a court warrant on charges that he violated the law on rallies and demonstrations. State law enforcement authorities have access to any information if they receive a warrant from the court to investigate. They cannot secure online evidence if they get a warrant too late because SNS content is not stored for more than a week.
The prosecution had a cyber surveillance team to address the rampant use of vulgar language, slander and malicious attacks in cyberspace even before President Park Geun-hye’s complaint. According to statistics reported in the media, the prosecutors filed libel suits against 80 people based on the Information and Communications Network Act in the first half of this year alone, up 16.9 percent since the same period last year. The number increased to 114 in 2013, from 79 in 2012. The court also has turned to harsh punishments for cyber crimes. In the first nine months of this year, 121 defendants (an increase of 9.5 percent over the same period last year) were found guilty of damaging someone’s reputation in violation of the information and communications network act. The number is a sharp increase from the 59 who were found guilty in 2012, and 58 in 2013.
Malicious attacks and spreading groundless accusations, along with hacking, phishing and scams, are serious crimes in a society where use of the Internet and digital services has become ubiquitous. Many public figures have committed suicide and their family members suffer immense emotional pain. The damage can be as fatal and lasting as physical threats. Cyber terrorism through collective attacks on certain individuals can leave permanent scars on victims’ families and on society as a whole.
Public figures have become easy victims of cyber attacks and slander. Ruling and opposition lawmakers often become targets because both have supporters and critics. Lee Hee-ho, the wife of late President Kim Dae-jung, filed charges against a netizen who accused her of having 12 trillion won ($11.2 billion) under a false name this year. Former presidential candidate Moon Jae-in of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy also pressed charges against a group of netizens who accused him of embezzling 20 trillion won. The president recently has had to deal with rumors of a romantic relationship.
The prosecutors have made a mess out of their rightful duty because they clumsily acted upon a remark from the president. Still, cyber slander and the spreading of defamatory rumors must not be tolerated for the sake of upholding public decency and trust. The prosecution must specify the details of its plans for surveillance and guidelines on defamation in order to restore public confidence in state authority and law and order in cyberspace.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
*The author is a guest professor at the Korea University Graduate School of Information Security and former head of the National Security Research Institute.
BY Sohn Young-dong