WORDS ARE more easily said when one can hide behind the shield of anonymous posting. The convenience of anonymous online platforms has created a blindside for exploitation, allowing people to lash out at others without considering the consequences on the victim as well as society. In South Korea, online anonymity has shed light on hate comments as a serious social issue, yet official laws that mandate legal persecution of online hate comments are yet to be established. The gravity of the issue of hate comments is constantly on a rise; with the number of crimes related to online defamation increasing from 6320 cases in 2013 to 15,043 just two years later in 2015*, demands for a reform of the legislation have persistently been made over the years. However, questions pertaining the law continue to exist today—can a law actually address “comments that kill”?
The start of it all
Since the establishment of Yahoo! Korea in 1997, the first portal site that emerged in Korea, numerous other portal websites followed the trend, with Naver and Daum being the dominant stakeholders in the industry today. According to Korea Joongang Daily, over 70% of South Koreans are dependent on these web portals for information and electronic communication on a daily basis. While the concept of a web portal is not an isolated establishment within Korea, Korean web portals differentiate themselves from those of other countries with a unique additional feature—the presence of comment sections at the bottom of any online posts or news articles where users can comment anonymously and exchange opinions with other web users who can access the same information. However, while such feature enabling bidirectional communications can be seen as a useful means to voice one’s views, the element of anonymity and the large user population of web portals made these portals vulnerable to consolidation of malicious comments that could form a misguided representation of hate. “Users are given a sense of unity and belonging because so many people leave such malicious comments,” stated Kwak Geum-joo (Prof., Dept. of Psychology, Seoul National Univ.) in an interview with The Korea Herald. “They feel no guilt and even believe their actions are just and correct.”
Previous attempts to eradicate hate comments
The social implications of this distorted trend within the Korean web portals were recently highlighted once again with the unfortunate death of Choi Jin-ri, a female celebrity with the stage name Sulli. The emergence of web portals has subjected many celebrities to be the central victims of hate comments, and Choi was not an exception as she had long been the target of online vitriol. The suicide of the 25-year-old entertainer ignited a public outrage on the web portals which for years neglected to take any measures on hate comments, as associated petitions flooded the Blue House online public petition portal. Most prominently, on Oct. 15, 2019, a petition titled, “Create a Choi Jin-ri law for humane lives” was posted on the Blue House’s online public petition portal. This petition for the enactment of the “Sulli Act”—an informal title of the legislation pertaining to the enforcement of a real-name system for all users of web portal sites—was signed by over 23,000 people as of November 14. Along with the use of a real-name system, the petition also demanded suspensions of journalists who publish articles that violate privacy or include unverified claims**. The petition however has yet to reach a conclusion, with the online public petition system requiring a minimum of 100,000 signatures within a 30-day time span to receive an official reply from the government.
While there has not been any official laws specifically imposing a ban on hate comments, victims of such were granted a form of legal protection as perpetrators behind hate comments could be legally charged and sued under defamation. According to Kim Jong-hwan (Prof., Yonsei Law School), legal clauses acknowledging liability for defamation had existed ever since the enactment of the South Korean criminal law in September 1953, and punishment for defamation on the internet was introduced in 2001 under the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, Etc. “Defamation on the internet—which includes commenting malicious posts—is punished more severely than usual defamation,” stated Kim in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. “Since voicing opinions on the internet has become more common ever since the mid 1990s, it has been concluded that acts of defamation on the internet were to face greater charges.” Kim stated that punishment varies depending on the kind of defamation committed: by harming one’s reputation by stating facts about the victim, or by making false statements. In the former case, perpetrators are subject to a two-year imprisonment or a fine of below ₩5 million; in the latter, they are to be sentenced to five years in prison or pay a fine of ₩10 million.
The real-name system proposed in the “Sulli Act” was not a new concept. Article 1 Subparagraph 2 of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, Etc. once mandated websites with an average number of daily users of over 100,000 to be allowed to use a real-name system until 2014. However, the real-name system failed to completely establish itself with the Constitutional Court, which declared the system as unconstitutional in 2012. The policy was abolished in 2014, with the claim that there would be potential restrictions on the freedom of expression as well as the risk of personal information being made public. Now, enforcement of the system is restricted to websites belonging to governmental bodies and public organizations. The recent incident regarding hate comments resurfaced the need for its revival with public opinion demanding a reform in the legislation once again. The Metro reported that on Oct. 25, 2019, nine members of the National Assembly introduced the “Sulli Act” which included clauses calling for a reimplementation of the real-name system. The bill was supported by approximately 100 national organizations including the Global Culture & Art Solidarity, The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, and the Korean Government Employees’ Union, along with approximately 200 celebrities who were colleagues of Choi or victims of hate comments themselves. The bill was announced to be proposed on the 49th day of Choi’s passing, in early December of this year at the National Assembly.
While the bill has not yet been concretized, it is receiving considerable support from the web portal industry—the use of a real-name system had been supported by media platforms such as Kakao that responded to the recent incident by temporarily shutting down the comments section on entertainment news pages of its portal site Daum on October 25, recognizing serious side effects from anonymous commenting infringing privacy and defamation***. Kakao’s decision appeared to influence that of other portal sites including Naver, who also responded to the issue of online malicious speech with a non-hurtful comments campaign where curse words in posts were to be replaced with asterisks and displayed with a warning message****.
However, while there is a common consensus on the considerable societal harm that the culture of hate commenting poses, the reinstitution of a real-name system is received with mixed views as the current reformation pursued to tackle hate comments is nearly identical to the previous attempts of establishing real-name systems up until 2014. “In 2019, after five years [since the declaration of the real-name system as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court], there is the question of whether society has changed much compared to the past when the law was removed from legislation,” expressed Kim. “While it may be possible in ten or so years after the deletion, it will be difficult to observe a great change immediately that will push for a reconsideration of the law’s enactment within only five years.” Furthermore, with significantly limited information available on the “Sulli Act,” Kim also stated that it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of the law now. Even after the law is to be enacted, controversy is likely to continue, as establishment of a real-name system merely because of one person or incident may be viewed as unjustified, along with the harsh reality that real-name systems will most likely not eliminate every online hate comment. The law may be a precaution to teach people to use online commenting more carefully, but there is a high likelihood that there will still be people who make malicious remarks online.
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It is an unfortunate reality that malicious comments are not yet dealt with separately under the South Korean criminal law. While there are possibilities of a future enactment of a law working against hate comments especially with the increasing public awareness of the seriousness of the issue, the debate over the use of real-name systems is likely to continue.
*The Dong-A Ilbo