Is South Korea Encouraging Portal Sites to Self-Censor?

The South Korean government has announced plans to allow large portal sites to censor or delete user comments that are deemed libelous, a move that Korean web users fear will restrict freedom of expression online.

The South Korean Communications Commission held a conference this week proposing regulations [ko] that give popular portal sites the power to make user comments invisible especially those considered libelous, for 30 days. If no active measures, such as the concerned user filing a complaint, are taken during that period of time, the sites can delete the comment.

Authorities claim that the regulation will lessen the burden of portal sites by reducing the number of defamation cases they face because of their users’ comments. However, critics question whether it is justifiable to allow the portal site to decide whether a comment is libelous or not– a tough judgement call even for legal professionals. 

Korean Portal Sites Logo

Image of Korea's largest portal sites (their arbor day edition) where active online discussions are taking place. Image uploaded by Flickr user @paperon. (CC BY NC 2.0)

Local media pointed out [ko] that the authorities assured the web portals that there will be clauses included that minimize their legal liability in case of a lawsuit– so portals will remain unscathed as long as they show they have censored or deleted the comments. However, opponents say the measures will promote self-censorship and political powers could abuse this bill to pressure portals to silence the opposition.

Net users in well-known, active community sites such as TodayHumor [ko] and Ppompuu [ko] exchanged heated discussions regarding the proposed regulation and the recent trend of South Korean authorities proposing multiple bills restricting online activities, such as a bill that would regulate online gaming like drugs and alcohol, and another that would limit hours of smartphone usage [ko]. Net user ID: 껄껄 explained [ko] on TodayHumor site: 

이전: 정치인 -> 요청 -> 포털 -> 삭제. 이후: 정치인 : 요청x :포털 -> 삭제

한마디로 포털을 방패삼아 자신은 숨으면서 포털에게 무소불위의 힘을 주어 알아서 기라는말. 쟁점1. 안그래도 애매 모호한 명예훼손인데 포털들이 객관적으로 과연 판단가능할것인가. 쟁점2. “투명성과 공정성을 기한다면 큰 문제가 없을 것” 반대로 투명성과 공정성이 잃는다면 큰문제가 된다는것. 명예훼손이라는 법적인 영역을 과연 일개 기업이 판단가능한 영역이고 자의적으로 즉결처분가능 영역인가?

BEFORE: Politicians request portals to delete
AFTER: Politicians don't need to request. But portals go ahead and delete anyway.

This regulation means to use portals as a shield that they can hide behind them. It also intends to be, I gave you the power [to delete], so in return you voluntarily submit to me. Here is the first talking point: Libel is such a complicated case [to determine]. Will portal sites be able to make an objective judgment? Second talking point: They say that ‘when clarity and impartiality are maintained, it will not be a problem’. In other words, it can be understood as, ‘When clarity and impartiality are lost, there will be a serious problem’. Will an ordinary company [such as portal sites] be able to make the right judgments on legal issues such as libel, and is it within their area of expertise to make a final call?

Below is a part of one discussion thread [ko] from Ppomppu site:

악용될가능성이 아주 부단하죠. 악용보단 아주 이용할려고 작정을 한거죠 . 말이 안되는 법안이라 생각하는데요[…] 저대로 활용되면 그게 좋겠죠.. 실상은 조금만 맘에 안 들어도 삭제하라고 할 듯..[…] 댓글삭제 함부로 안되는 곳으로 몰리겠네요.

It is highly likely that this rule will be abused. Well, I would say they intend to abuse it, and I think it is just a plainly ridiculous bill […] It would be good if it really works the way [that they claim], but in reality, these sites will try to delete comments right away when they find them disagreeable […] Now people will go to site where they don't freely delete comments.

Here are discussions from the South Korean Twittersphere:

@Chocolete90: 7,80년대에나 통할 법한 통제를 지금 시대에 적용한다고 될 법한 일인가? 인터넷 규제 정말 가능하다고 보는건가? […]설상가상 시대감각도 없어..

@Chocolete90: Do they really think it is possible to apply such regulation that could have only worked back in the 70s and 80s? Do they seriously think it is possible to regulate the Internet? […] Such an anachronistic decision.

@ehanb: 문제는 지들 유리한 글은 내깔겨 둘 것이 뻔하다는 거.

@ehanb: The problem is that it is undeniably clear that they will leave comments that work in their favor.

@skjn_legon: 역시 그 분들에게는 인터넷이 두렵고 어려운 미지의 세계겠지. 그러니 힘이 있을 때 확 잡아놓고 싶겠지[…]

@skjn_legon: For those authorities, the Internet is an unknown, dark and scary place. So they want to rein it in while they are still in power.

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