Victory for freedom of expression in South Korea

By AL Publisher: APCNews     Seoul,

Photo credit: Emmanuel Dyan; CC BY 2.0 LicencePhoto credit: Emmanuel Dyan; CC BY 2.0 LicenceOn the 23rd of August 2012, South Korean digital rights organisation Jinbonet won a long struggle. For the last five years, the APC member group fought an internet real name system regulation. The Constitutional Court ruled unanimously against this regulation, that is part of a larger law known as “the network act”, arguing that it is unconstitutional to require people to authenticate their identity in order to post or comment on websites. South Korea was the only country in the world to have such regulation.

The “internet real name system”

In June 2007, 37 major internet sites and other government sites were forced to implement a verification system that would verify individuals’ identities when posting articles or comments. The websites were selected on the basis of their minimum daily number of visitors, set at 200,000. But the situation worsened even more when debate erupted around beef import negotiations in 2008. Public opinion criticising the negotiations spread quickly over the internet. The government decided to decrease the minimum number of daily visitors needed to be subject to the “real name system” to 100,000. This drew 153 websites under the internet real name system in November 2008. In April 2009, YouTube refused to cooperate with this regulation and in turn banned users whose “country content preference” was set to South Korea from posting any content.

Freedom of expression compromised

Anonymous speech on the internet, provided it spreads rapidly and openly, allows people to overcome the economic or political hierarchy off-line. It enables citizens to form public opinions free from class, social status, age, and gender distinctions, which make governance more reflective of the opinions of people from diverse classes and so it further promotes democracy. Therefore, anonymous speech on the internet – though fraught with harmful side-effects – should be strongly protected in view of its constitutional values.

The South Korean legislation enforced identity verification from almost all users on all major websites, regardless of the content. Many prospective posters, not completely sure of what a prohibited post is, became hesitant to post at all, in fear of disciplinary measures or outright prosecution. This risk, it must be specified, flows from the mandatory storage of user’s authentication information in the service provider’s servers. As a result, the majority of posts, (which are legal) are suppressed, and this action is justified because of a minority of people abusing the internet. This is an excessive restriction on freedom of anonymous speech.

The current version of the Internet Verification Rule (IVR), relies on credit check companies and prohibits foreigners and overseas Koreans (who don’t possess a resident registration number) from posting at all and so it effectively deprives them of their freedom of speech.

The current criminal procedure and other provisions of the Information Network Act already sentence prosecution for illegal postings, while current technologies allow for the identification of the authors of illegal postings. The IVR works as a initial restraint on the user’s freedom of expression. It limits the expression in itself and further restricts the constitutional right to expression, undermining the free formation of opinions, the very basis of democracy.

The impact on users’ privacy

The Identity Verification Rule requires web operators to collect all the users’ identity verification information and to store it for long periods. This exposes the users to the risks of breach or their data being used for other purposes, which can play in favour of investigative expediency. Treating all people as potential criminals is never a good approach.

The mandatory storage of identity information causes a serious restriction on one’s right to personal data protection. This is due to the fact that the stored data can be subject to diversion for non-consented-to purposes, when investigative authorities request such data (under Article 83 (3) of the Telecommunication Act).

Civil society’s reaction

APCNews talked to Jinbonet’s Oh Byoungil, to find out how the organisation lobbied against the bill. “We adopted all the legal measures we could, and we developed an awareness-raising campaign. We released statements criticising the Network Act, submitted a written opinions to the government, organised several public forums, submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Committee and wrote an opinion to the UN Human Rights Council. We also proposed revising the Act at the National Assembly to abolish it, and filed the constitutional lawsuit,” Oh Byoungil said.

But still the struggle is far from over. Currently, there are several internet identity verification rules still in force in South Korea. IVR is enforceable during election periods, for game users, and for subscribers of mobile phones. “We will continue fighting to abolish any regulations that are currently undermining the freedom of expression of South Koreans,” he closed.

This article is based on the South Korean report for Global Information Society Watch 2009 ( and K.S. Park’ blog ‘Korean internet identity verification rule struck down unconstitutional; 12 highlights of the judgment (

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