Big Brother in S Korea's cyberspace

South Korea's prosecutors have assumed the role of an Orwellian Big Brother, acting "pre-emptively" against dissemination of false information by monitoring activities in cyberspace and immediately removing false information as it is discovered.

The new measures were announced after the Supreme Prosecutor's Office convened a meeting of officials from the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, Ministry of Security and Public Administration, National Police Agency, Korean Communications Standards Commission, the Korea Internet & Security Agency and representatives of the country's major portal operators on September 18 to discuss measures against libel in cyberspace.

The measures are ostensibly aimed at preventing libel in cyberspace, and indeed the increasing number of Internet libel cases attest to the widespread nature of the crime. But the timing and the scope of the measures invite the view that they are, in fact, censorship intended to stifle public opinion and criticism of the government.

A team of five prosecutors and investigators will be formed within the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office to handle online dissemination of false information. Rather than wait for the aggrieved party to file a complaint, the prosecutors will strike preemptively against false information by monitoring the Internet and removing falsehoods when they are discovered. Redistributors of false information will be penalized to the same extent as the original disseminator, and in cases involving "grave" falsehoods, the perpetrators would be detained during the investigation.

However, it should be remembered that the Constitutional Court, acting on the case of Park Dae-sung, an Internet blogger indicted for spreading false information, ruled the clause concerning dissemination of false information in the Telecommunications Basic Act to be unconstitutional, and the clause was immediately discarded.

In finding the clause unconstitutional, the court pointed out the highly abstract nature of the concept of the "public interest" in the law's wording on "harming the public interest." On "falsehood," the court said, "With any expression it is extremely difficult to distinguish between opinion and fact, objective truth and falsehood."

In the landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court said, "the state cannot make a primary decision on the value of expression or information or the presence or absence of harmfulness." It continued, "This must be entrusted to the self-correcting functions of civil society and the competitive mechanism of thought and opinion."

That ruling is thought to have raised Korea's standard of freedom of expression. Yet, four years later, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office has resurrected the specter of "false information" to stifle freedom of expression.

The clause on dissemination of false information in the Telecommunications Basic Act has been thrown out as unconstitutional, raising questions about how the newly announced measures would be enforced. This is why the measures sound more like a threat to muzzle public opinion than it is about punishing libel in cyberspace. At the very least, the threats would lead to self-censorship, if not stifle healthy public debate about controversial issues.

On September 19, prosecutors raided the home of the colleague of a translator at News Pro, a website offering translations of foreign news on Korea, questioning him about the identity of a translator. A conservative group early last month filed a libel complaint against the translator, identified as Min Seong-chul by News Pro, along with Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau chief Tatsuya Kato for a Sankei Shimbun article on Park Geun-hye's whereabouts on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster.

With the raid, prosecutors have signaled their eagerness to implement the new measures against false information. The prosecutors' declaration of "zero tolerance" and "pre-emptive action" against false information harks us back to the dark days of censorship, to the detriment of our hard fought freedom of expression.