Vigilante website for sex offenders shut down, probed

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Vigilante website for sex offenders shut down, probed

A screen capture of the website Digital Prison, which disclosed personal information of accused sex offenders. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A screen capture of the website Digital Prison, which disclosed personal information of accused sex offenders. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
A website run by internet vigilantes is under investigation for going after alleged sex offenders, which led to the suicide of a university student in July.
 
The Daegu police said Wednesday they filed an assistance request with Interpol to apprehend and extradite the operators of the controversial website, known as Digital Prison.
 
As of Tuesday afternoon, the website was no longer accessible to the public, presumably shut down by its operators after police last week announced they had identified the vigilantes, who were residing in an undisclosed foreign country.
 
Created in June in the aftermath of the infamous “Nth room” digital pornography bust, Digital Prison was — according to one of its operators — a citizen’s answer to Korea’s criminal justice system and its oft-criticized tendency to dole out light sentences to serious offenders.
 
It listed — or "doxxed," in internet lingo — private information on dozens of people it claimed were sex offenders, murderers and other potential felons, including their pictures, ages, addresses and phone numbers, as well as details about the allegations they faced.    
 
Perhaps the most prominent figure exposed by the vigilante website was Son Jong-woo, the convicted operator of Welcome to Video — formerly the world’s largest child pornography website by amount of content.
 
Son was controversially released after serving a mere 18-month sentence in July after a Korean court turned down an extradition request by the United States. The ruling generated immense public criticism of authorities’ ineffective attempts to clamp down on digital sex crimes.
 
It was with such a backdrop that Digital Prison emerged as an outlet for ordinary Koreans to vent their frustrations at a perceived lack of justice. Before it went offline, the site on average had around 20,000 daily visitors, who were allowed to leave comments on individual pages of the accused.
 
One of its top operators, going by the online alias Pedro, told the JoongAng Ilbo in July that the purpose of the website was to grant the public the ability to properly punish sex offenders — since the government was not going to.  
 
Such practices are potentially illegal and have engendered intense debate on how far individual citizens should be allowed to seek justice on their own.  
 
There have already been several prominent cases in which Digital Prison has leveled false accusations at people.  
 
Professor Chae Jung-ho, who teaches psychiatry at the Catholic University of Korea’s College of Medicine, was one such victim.  
 
In June, Digital Prison put his information and picture on its website, accusing Chae of having attempted to purchase a video depicting illegal sex trafficking. A screen capture of a conversation on a messenger app was uploaded to the website as evidence of this attempted purchase.  
 
Chae said he was bombarded with hate messages and threats after his personal information was listed on the website, while a petition even appeared on the Blue House website calling for his punishment.  
 
Dumbfounded by the turn of events, and disbelieved by even his close friends and family members, Chae resorted to asking the police to investigate himself, turning over all data he had available.  
 
After two weeks of thorough digital forensic analysis of over 99,000 text messages and 54,000 individual internet records, police concluded in late July that the professor had no connection to the alleged crime in question, and that the photograph allegedly depicting his solicitation of the video had been doctored or came from a different person.  
 
But while Chae was somewhat vindicated through the investigation, many others attacked by the website have found no recourse to plead their cases.  
 
On July 3, a 20-year-old Korea University student committed suicide after his personal information, including phone number and academic information, were posted on Digital Prison.
 
The website claimed the student had shared a doctored photograph of his colleague photoshopped on a pornographic image, an allegation the student denied in a post on an online university forum before he took his own life.  
 
The death prompted demands by users of Korea University’s online forum for Digital Prison to be shut down. The website’s operators fought back, claiming it had offered the student the chance to take his information down if he submitted proof of his innocence.  
 
Completely unregulated but for the whims of its operators, Digital Prison has been linked to at least two confirmed instances in which it doxxed people for sex offenses, but later admitted they had accused the wrong people with identical sounding names.  
 
Such acts have apparently convinced the government it can no longer stand by as such vigilantism spirals out of its control.
 
Han Sang-huk, chairman of Korea Communications Commission, the country’s media watchdog, in a parliamentary hearing Tuesday vowed to impose criminal penalties on the website, saying the actions by Digital Prison constituted defamation.
 
“This is something that cannot happen in a civilized society,” he said.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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