Events in Korea these days remind me a fair bit of that Demosthenes/Locke subplot in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. If you haven’t read the novel, well, basically a couple of really smart kids hijack the world political debate by posting pseudonymously online, using personae that are, in fact, quite different from their own personalities, sometimes quite consciously, to determine the way the global debate plays out.
I’ve posted in the past about the Korean internet, censorship, and the odious “Real-Name System” that has essentially eliminated all possibility of real anonymity online at many websites in Korea by requiring people to use their National ID number to register on a given site.
But no, no, that’s not enough control: with each celebrity suicide, the media has begun screaming about “Internet Rumors” and some politician or other lets out a rallying cry for increased control of Internet content and usage. Even the foreign media seems to have picked up the wrongheaded claim that online gossip can “cause” suicide.
The simple fact is that both sides of the (narrow) political spectrum in South Korea have been pushing for increased controls. The “Real Name System” — whereby users must sign in using their national identification number to use major portal sites — came into effect under the (relatively) progressive Roh government1., as far as I recall.
I’ve run across online polls in the past that suggested a number of Korean internet users, or “netizens,” support censorship and government control of the Internet, and this is a position I’ve seen widely held among young people as well. The reasoning follows thus:
Lots of people “behave badly” online, ruining people’s lives (as in the cybermob that stalked Dog Poop Girl) or killing people. Many celebrities who have killed themselves in the last few years have done so “because of” rumors and slander online in various anonymous comment boards.
(Note that celebrity suicide seems to be construed — in the media and in politicians’ statements and thus in public discussions as well — as an involuntary response to online slander. Little or no connection is made in the media to the issues of Korea’s mental health care infrastructure, such as it is. Nobody mentions the fact that celebrities worldwide sustain comparable, if not quite the same, amount of bashing online. Nobody even brings up the other tens of thousands of people who kill themselves in Korea yearly without a bit of online slander to push them into it.)
Once it’s established that people “behave badly” and the spectre of murder by Internet is looming broadly in everyone’s imagination, then comes the punch, and the punch is increased internet controls and censorship. Indeed, the degree of control and tracking that is inherent in the Korea Internet today is at levels that would have Civil Libertarians in the USA far beyond up in arms: they would be suing the living crap out of the government, or promulgating a new wave of hacking, anti-tracking, and diasporic Net services free from government controls.
(Which, by the way, is about the best I can imagine will come of the Korean Internet: that the portal sites will finally stand up to the government by following the law to the letter, and establishing servers offshore for the purposes of giving their users the option of using the internet without being tracked and spied upon by their own government. After all, if Daum is obligated to provide this information to the government, Haum — Daum’s Hong Kong sister-company — would not be. Of course, that would require the portal companies to grow a pair, and the money’s too good for them to dare that. And sadly, it looks like a nonexistent niche, given how few people actually seem to oppose their government’s invasiveness.)
But in any case, most people seemed to be quite naive about the prospects of the government misusing this Real Name System. However, stirrings have registered online, with one very interesting case.
Minerva is the name that’s on everyone’s lips now, and I’ve been meaning to write something about this fellow ever since the Korean public started discussing him back in (I think it was) November. Now that the story has been covered by both the Washington Post and Time (both links via this post at The Marmot’s Hole), I figure maybe I might as well rail a bit. Continue reading