SEOUL – With cheap and ubiquitous access to the world’s fastest Internet speeds and a lively democracy, South Korea’s cyberspace could flourish with rich discussions and debates ahead of the country’s general election this week.
The reality, however, is that online comments or posts depicting a candidate in a negative light can be blocked with a few simple clicks thanks to a law allowing anyone to ask for them to be deleted for alleged libel or privacy violations.
Critics worry that such compromises of online freedom of expression have limited the ability of voters to be fully informed ahead of Wednesday’s election, which will see South Koreans elect 300 new lawmakers to parliament. They also raise questions over how the state and public should balance the sometimes conflicting rights to privacy and freedom of speech.
“The South Korean Internet appears vibrant. But only short and fragmentary expressions like tweets are flourishing as a way of communicating,” said Park Kyung-shin, a professor of law at Korea University. “Many people have used various methods available in South Korea to censor even content that is trustworthy, well-structured and well-written, because of its potential impact.”
Anonymous online activities, deemed legal in 2012 by the constitutional court, are generally banned during the two-week pre-election campaign period.
But even outside of that time frame, many South Koreans have been fearful of online discussions of any news reports that raise allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers. Such online posts could be zapped for only tenuous concerns over libel or false information. People caught sharing unfavorable new reports on a candidate can face investigation for libel or the criminal charge of spreading false information.
Freedom of speech has become a point of concern during the presidency of Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee.
A Japanese journalist, Tatsuya Kato of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was charged with defaming the South Korean president by reporting that she was spending time with a man during a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people. Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison term for Kato, who was found not guilty in December in a case critics say illustrated how defamation laws can be used to gag the press and suppress dissent.
Some of the South Korean online political commentary that has been ordered deleted seems tame compared with the online free-for-all raging around this year’s U.S. presidential campaign.
When a report in March by local investigative reporting organization Newstapa that a ruling party lawmaker’s daughter with Down syndrome had received preferential treatment in a college admission process for disabled students went viral, a blogger urged the university and the lawmaker, Na Kyung-won, to respond to the allegation.
Less than 10 hours later, the blog service operator Kakao notified the 37-year-old blogger, known online by his pseudonym TB, that the post had been removed because the election commission said it was spreading false information.
The blogger had three days to appeal to the commission.
In the meantime, he was summoned every day for a week for questioning over a mistake in his post, which incorrectly said that the university’s special admissions process for disabled students had been abolished after Na’s daughter was admitted.
The school told the election commission that the special admissions process was not abolished. The news report had actually said that “no more disabled students” were accepted to the school’s music department, which Na’s daughter was admitted to, after the daughter’s admission.
The blogger ignored the summonses, and the commission dropped the case without pressing charges.
But the man, who asked that his name not be disclosed to avoid trouble with his family and colleagues, said by email that it was the first time in six years of blogging that he had felt threatened.
“I experienced for the first time that someone who is politically influential can be scary. It would be a lie to say that I was not intimidated,” he said. “Even on social media, people are not able to talk about Na Kyung-won.”
Internet companies accept without a thorough review nearly all requests to remove online posts, because they could be fined if they refuse, said Im Byeoung-do, a prominent South Korean political commentator who is known online as “ImPeter.”
Im shifted his 7-year-old blog from a server operated by Kakao to an independent server in late 2015. The switch cost him traffic from Web portals and online search engine users, he said, but his posts stopped disappearing without explanation.
Im said that before making the change, at least two of his posts were deleted each day. Now, the election commission emails him about any suspected violations of election laws in his blog posts, giving him a chance to revise his posts and avoid having them erased.
Regarding complaints by TB and Im, Kakao cited local laws that fine companies for not carrying out the election commission’s removal requests. It also said companies are obliged to temporarily remove posts when there is any doubt over possible privacy violations or libel.
In South Korea, hundreds of thousands of online posts get deleted every year by such temporary removal requests, which in effect remove the posts permanently because most are not appealed. During the campaign seasons, candidates often use such requests to stop the spread of potentially damaging news and commentary.
Na’s campaign team asked the National Election Commission to remove about 60 online posts that mentioned the college admissions allegations. Song Ki-hwan, an official with the commission’s cyberelection crime response team, said at least 600 online posts were deleted for the same mistake TB made about the change in admissions policies or for slandering Na. Na’s office did not respond to an email or a phone call seeking comment.
Naver, operator of South Korea’s most visited search engine, says its policy is to delete posts when asked to do so by the authorities, even before any investigation, to help limit damage caused by libelous or defamatory comments.
Kakao, which operates South Korea’s second-most visited web portal, Daum, said it has deleted most of the posts related to 47,797 requests for deletion due to alleged libel. It is not clear how many of them were related to the elections.
Unlike local companies, Facebook and Twitter generally do not delete posts even when asked to do so. Twitter, which is popular for its air of anonymity, did not remove any of the 146 posts that government agencies or the police asked it to take down in 2015, according to the company’s transparency report.
Since many local media companies temporarily shut down the comment functions for their news articles to avoid violating the pre-election ban on anonymous commentary, online commentators increasingly favor anonymous forums such as Twitter, says Park, the Korea University professor.
“That is why I think serious discourses in South Korea’s Internet space are being replaced by fragmented and marginalized tweets,” said Park.