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Internet and the Freedom of Expression

Social groups in Korea assume that this is not a proper way of protection of minors but just a very dangerous censorship.

Source  :  Korean Progressive Network (Jinbonet)

By Chang, Yeo-Kyung (jinbonet)

The Chairman of Jinbonet, Lee Chong-hui, carries out Hunger Strike.

1. Internet and Freedom of Expression

As far as access is concerned, the internet is the best means of expression that human beings have ever had. Anyone can express their thoughts or publish their work regardless of money or space. In turn, editorial power has decreased. The speed of transfer and the expanding range of the internet is faster and broader than any other form of media in the world. But this itself presents several problems. Assuming that expression on the internet is boundless, then how do address the issue of regulation? Who makes them? What are the standards? The answers to those questions do not lie in internet technology, but in the political realm.

Freedom of expression has long been a fundamental element of democracy since the beginning of modern society. But in reality, it has been restricted by those in power who have dominated mass media. This imbalance started to change with the advent of the internet. In the past, only edited information and "high" art were considered to be the accepted modes of expression, but with the emergence of the internet, more and varied forms of expression produced by the people have appeared--rough, unscrutinized, but pure to the intentions of the artist or writer. Thus, the internet has radically transformed the meanings of "expression" and "culture." On the other hand, complications between the internet and the law have surfaced. The solution to resolving these problems is to maintain the principles of freedom of expression. The desire for freedom of expression by the people has increased proportionally as it has become easier and cheaper to express ideas, and this should be protected as much as possible. We must also safeguard principles of non-discrimination based on sex, race or nation.

2. The Model of Internet Content Regulation.

Recently, there have been ongoing debates on internet content regulation between the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) and social groups about how to set up a model of internet content regulation. There are two typical types of content regulation model in public broadcasting and book. In public broadcasting, the standard of regulation is very strict because of several reasons that broadcasting system has a very strong influence on common people, especially children and minors, and all families are watching together. But most importantly, the limited number of channels available has allowed the government to easily and effectively control the content of programs through regulation laws. On the other hand, printing papers like book have been given greater freedom of expression. To understand books, people need abilities of literacy and analysis of printing contents. The regulation model to control the content of printing papers has paid regard to the readers’ own interpretations, not just regulating as whole. There have been minimum regulations on printing materials. If it is not illegal, the freedom of speech has been authorized popularly.
The model of Korean internet regulation, which censors supposedly 'dangerous' or 'harmful' content, was originally applied to public broadcasting. But most importantly, internet content regulation should be reasonable and adjustable according to social consensus. It is frustrating that discussions about internet regulation have been overwhelmed by sensational stories of 'hazardous internet,' for example, websites that deals with suicide or those that teach people how to make bombs.

For now, we need to focus on the judgment by the Supreme Court of the United States in regards to internet content regulation. According to their decision, internet content regulation is against the constitution because laws which prevent the transmission of ‘indecent' and 'offensive' content to juveniles is vague and likely to violate the freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution. Even though the U.S. and Korea have different traditions of law and cultural background, they are correct in saying that the government cannot regulate the internet with ambiguous standards. That could very well lead to the violation of freedom of expression.

Certain content is “illegal” -- who can define and how punish that, especially just expression not behavior. It is very crucial questions that still remain unsolved because expression is very different from behavior. According to current Korean law, expression can be illegal. It is only limited that if it threatens national security, or if it is obscene, fraudulent, commits character defamation and election violation. But some internet cases are not clear whether they fall within those categories, and therefore whether they are subject to punishment. For example, cyber-stalking, though it does not constitute physical harassment, can violate women's rights of self-determination, and so it is surely a crime. But the existing law is too obscure to penalize cyber-stalkers. So there is a necessity to reform internet laws in order to decrease crimes committed on the internet, especially in regards to women and minors. However, it cannot be a justification for the government to authoritatively expand its internet regulatory and censorship powers.

3. Korean Internet Censorship

Communication using the personal computer in Korea has spread rapidly since the late 1980s. Security authorities worried about this new development, and applied the "National Security Law" to PC communication. In the early 1990s, they added a new provision called "regulation of dangerous communication" in the Electronic Communication Business law. This new article is based on the Information Communication Ethics Committee(ICEC) which had the power to censor what it viewed as "dangerous content" and deprive the author of their account. In 1999, the Jinbonet k and Lawyers for a Democratic Society protested this law, insisting that it violated the constitution. Freedom of expression is just as important as "national security," they argued. We can confirm this in the principles of Johannesburg (see appendix). These principles mean much more than ever to us, especially at this time when the internet is being regulated by censors in the name of "national security against terrorism."

The ICEC examines how "harmful" the content is and gives it a grade. In Korea, any website deemed "harmful" is required to be inaccessible to minors. But how a website is defined as "harmful" has been criticized. Last June, Kim In-kyu, a junior high school fine arts teacher, posted a naked picture of himself and his wife on his homepage. Government authorities determined that his website was harmful to minors, and he was then arrested. A website called "inoschool," which urged students to voluntarily leave school, was also shut down due to the reason that "it's not appropriate for students to talk about leaving school." Likewise, almost all gay and lesbian sites have been shut down because homosexuality is considered by the government to be "dangerous" to minors.

These days, new means of censorship have emerged. The government said they will use the "PICS" classification system to grade websites and initiate blocking software to restrict access to websites it sees as violating internet content laws. This software will be supplied to PC rooms, schools, and libraries. The problem is that it is based on a default system which will block access to websites unless it is marked with a PICS grade. From now on, we will be forced to measure internet content with the moral standards imposed by the government and interpret those standards for their literal and political meaning. And we will have to be concerned about whether our content is "harmful" to minors or not, at least in the eyes of the government. It will be harder not only for minors but also for adults to log on to "harmful" homepages at the internet access point in PC rooms, school and libraries. The government also has hinted that they will soon impose the PICS classification system to foreign websites as well. So a lot of websites abroad will be inaccessible. Social groups in Korea argue that this is not the proper way to protect minors. It is a very dangerous form of censorship.

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