Bruised South Korean government takes on "infodemics"

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s unpopular young government is having second thoughts about the benefits of running the world’s most wired society.

In this file photo supporters of South Korea's President-elect Lee Myung-bak of the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) stand beside his portrait during a disbanding ceremony for the GNP election committee at the party headquarters in Seoul December 20, 2007. The mass access to the Internet, which helped the ex-CEO to his resounding presidential election victory, went on to become the instrument helping shatter that popularity in just five months in office. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The mass access to the Internet, which helped ex-CEO Lee Myung-bak to his resounding presidential election victory, went on to become the instrument helping shatter that popularity in just five months in office.

Now the government is working on new rules to rein in the excesses of its netizens and bring some control to the information -- and disinformation -- that bombards the nation’s computer screens.

“We have to guard against ‘infodemics,’ in which inaccurate, false information is disseminated, prompting social unrest that spreads like an epidemic,” Lee told parliament early in July.

Lee has every reason to take it personally.

Barely had he taken office in February than he was accused of putting the nation’s health at risk by agreeing to import U.S. beef, long banned because of concerns over mad cow disease.

Much of the fear, at times hysteria, was fanned by blogs and discussion boards that crammed into South Korea’s Internet space. It helped trigger mass protests that daily clogged central Seoul in late spring and early summer as tens of thousands took to the streets to demand U.S. beef be kept from South Korean tables.

An early hot topic was a scientific study, heavily distorted in the retelling but widely believed judging by Internet postings, that Koreans had a genetic predisposition to catching the disease.

Another was that a beef by-product used in the manufacture of diapers put the nation’s babies at risk of succumbing to bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

But the government argues its concern goes beyond attacks on its policies, and rules are needed to bring a largely uncontrolled media into line with its traditional counterpart.

Stories abound of people being cruelly and very publicly hounded on the Internet, sometimes to the point of suicide.

Personal information too has become increasingly vulnerable. Earlier this year, the country’s biggest online market place was hacked and enough information to identify some 13 million people released to anyone with an Internet connection -- which includes most of South Korea’s population.

The Justice Ministry is working on what it calls a Cyber Defamation Law.

“The reality is that we lack the means to effectively deal with harmful Internet messages,” a ministry official said.

The Korean Communications Commission, which regulates the industry, has come up with its own rules to oblige portals to suspend sites stepping outside the limits and force Websites to use real names of anyone posting comments.

The commission says the measures are designed to improve security and reduce the spread of false information.


Predictably, voices are rising that the government moves are attempts to erode freedom in a country that has had only two decades of democratic elections.

“The regulations violate the autonomy of the Internet and are an effective tool for tighter media control by the government,” said Lee Han-ki, senior editor at the popular citizen news Website OhMyNews.

“The regulations would bring about a reverse in the advancement of the Internet media as a whole.”

But an official with one major local portal, who asked not to be identified, said he thought the commission was right to get tough.

It was also backed by some academics, including Kweon Sang-hee, a journalism and mass communications professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

“South Korea is a leading testbed for the IT industry and the Internet media here certainly has a frontier-like aspect in leading experimental democracy.

“But the Internet media should also serve public good, and compared with other countries, South Korea has lacked the institutional control over the media, in which people tend to expand and reproduce unverified, one-sided information.”

South Korea’s netizens remain unconvinced.

“If you want to sue me with the Cyber Defamation Law, go ahead. History will charge you with insulting South Koreans,” read one posting.

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Jerry Norton