On Aug. 23 2012, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled against the nation’s law that would have implemented a real-name system on the Internet. The Court’s decision has been generating a nationwide controversy. So what is it that makes the real-name system such an important social issue that it caused a nationwide dispute?
The answer can be found in the social backgrounds surrounding the real-name system. In a Korean society, with an estimated Internet user population of 40 million, the growth of social networks and online communities has transformed the Internet world into one of the nation’s main social interaction hot spot.
Taking this into consideration, the Internet real-name system can have a significant impact on the Internet ethics and a sense of order. Throughout this article, we will focus on the two different types of online registration systems: real-name and false-name (anonymous identities). By doing so, we would like to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of these two online identity verification systems. Eventually, we intend to figure out how these systems are actually managed and which one would be better to ensure the future of our Internet society.
What is the problem? And why is there a problem?
To discuss the pros and cons of the real-name and false-name systems, we would like to begin by defining them. Firstly, the Internet real-name system refers to a policy for ‘Limited Verification of Identities.’ In other words, it is a system that demands users to verify their identities or resident registration numbers when signing in or commenting on Internet websites. The Internet real-name system is designed to minimize negative effects that can be caused by anonymity, such as slandering and unauthorized copyright sharing. On the other hand, the Internet false-name system is a policy that allows users to create their identities on their own. Users can freely use their real names on the Internet, but it is not necessarily required.
Almost all other foreign countries have adopted the Internet false-name system, except for some Asian countries such as China and Singapore. However, Korea began to practice the Internet real-name policy in 2004, after the Public Official Election Act was amended. Later, Korea’s online real-name system was expanded to cover online sites that had more than 100,000 visits per day.
The Internet real-name system gained a good reputation at first for strengthening online surveillance against illegal acts on the Internet, such as malicious commenting or slandering. However, it has been criticized for suppressing freedom of speech on the Internet and encouraging the ever-growing risk of personal information leaks. Moreover, some experts argue that the number of illegal acts online did not dwindle, but rather have remained almost the same, even after the online real-name system was put into practice. In contrast, the Internet false-name system has been supported for paving the way for online democracy. For that, the government needs to guarantee the freedom of expression. The false-name system has been credited for enhancing Internet users’ etiquette in the same way. However, the online anonymous policy has also been blamed for the aforementioned illegal online acts, thereby leading to the implementation of the Internet real-name system.
Then, can we conclude that both the Internet real-name and false-name policies are flawed systems? Let us take a look at a few more examples that show the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems.
The reality of real-names and false-names in actual cases
Actor Choi Jin-sil committed suicide in 2008. Since malicious comments about her were identified as a major reason for the incident, the government created a new law called, ‘Cyber Contempt.’ Running from July 2006, ‘Limited Verification of Identity’ was included into the Info-Communication Law in April 2009. Some people raised concerns that it was just a threatening measure taking advantage of an unfortunate situation to prevent others from criticizing the government. However, that case was enough to show the violence of malicious comments to the general people. Moreover, when the argument about the academic record of Tablo, a singer, became a big issue, some people abused their anonymity. They spread many rumors and made numerous slanders on online communities like ‘Tajinyo,’ claiming things as ‘We ask Tablo to confess the truth about his academic record.’ So-called, ‘Kadeora-tongsin (rumor makers),’ also hurt Tablo and his family as well. Sometimes on the Internet, there are some happenings like ‘Hip-shooters on a subway train or a bus.’ The problem is not only because people get angry about this wrong behavior, but also because people can get suspects’ private information and spread it on the Internet. They hurt their families and neighbors as well. Although there are suspects who deserve to be criticized, sometimes the suspicion against them is just a misunderstanding. However, on the Internet, there are many people who jump to conclusion and criticize suspects.
Another problem is the spread of illegal data. It is hard to refer to a specific case because there are so many of them. Moreover, because unfounded information can rapidly spread on the Internet, ‘Witch-hunts’ can occur. A witch-hunt has been identified as a very serious problem by many experts. Those problems are due to people abusing their freedom of expression on the Internet. To solve these problems, the government widely promoted the use of a limited verification system. After the promotion of this system, the number of malicious comments decreased and people began to think once more before they post their comments. It seemed like the system had a positive effect on solving the problem.
However, in June 2011, NATE and Cyworld, run by SK Communications, were hacked their clients’ private information. The private information of about 35 million Korean’s had been made public. It was an enormous incident. According to the Korea Communications Commission, it was the first time not just IDs and passwords but also names, resident registration numbers, cell phone numbers and so on was hacked. There was then another hacking attack on the open market site, Auction. Because of these incidents, many people began to have a negative perspective towards the real-name system. It allowed hackers’ easy access to another person’s private information to abuse their private information and invade their private lives. According to the statistics below, from Daum Agora, malicious comments on board counted for 8.3 percent of all the comments in 2007 after the promotion of the real-name system. However, its ratio increased to 14.1 percent in 2008. As well, the ratio of malicious comments on Moneyside and DCinside message boards also increased during the same period. The ratio of malicious comments was 13.9 percent out of all the comments at these websites, and it decreased slightly to 13 percent in a year. On the other hand, the number of total comments on these three websites decreased from about 13 thousand to eight thousand. The number of thoughtless slanders also decreased; however there was an analysis showing that the number of other malicious comments like adult advertising just changed their style and had not actually decreased. Moreover, the real-name system acts as a barrier to prevent foreigners from freely using the Internet. In the end, the Constitutional Court of Korea identified the policy as a violation of the Constitution and abolished it.
We could easily find examples like above around us. The University of Seoul (UOS) has a huge online community site, Gwangjang, which has over 35 thousand members. Because many students use it every day, there are lots of incidents among users. For example, there was a dispute between Dept. A and Dept. B because Dept. A roasted and ate meat in the Architecture and Civil Engineering Building and it upset the students in Dept. B. It was a problem that could have been solved through a simple apology. However, on Gwangjang, the students insulted and blamed each other. While they were arguing, they exposed each other’s private information like their real names and departments. Eventually, people who were directly involved apologized to each other and the case was closed.
For details, we interviewed two administrators of Gwangjang. Before we start, we would like to mention that these are their personal opinions and do not represent everyone involved with Gwangjang.
Suggestions for a solution
Then, what is the proper identification policy for the Internet? We started from the unconstitutional Limited Verification of Identity and defined the meaning of real-name and false-name systems. Also, we looked at some brief examples and some advantages and disadvantages of each. As a result, we saw that the false-name system causes many serious problems nowadays while the real-name system has put the brakes on its effectiveness because of the leakage of private information.
What is needed to solve present conflicts like those listed above? According to many experts, first, we need something to prevent the problem derived from the false-name system such as enforcement of monitoring malicious comments. More powerful penalties are also needed. Second, we need ‘Social Verification of Identity.’ It means self-censorship to write a comment on SNS or anywhere on the Internet. If someone writes a thoughtless slander or insults others, people will turn their attention towards those who deliver more useful, accurate and up-to-date information on SNS. In addition, some experts insist on a ‘Campaign of Seonpeul (선플).’ Seonpeul means ‘good comments’ in contrast to malicious comments. The campaign aims to encourage people to focus on using good and sound words when writing comments on the Internet.
Practicing the identification policy on the Internet has to be carefully considered because it is important to our future. As of now, both the real-name and false-name systems have many problems to be corrected. There is a joke that goes, “Koreans’ private information is global public goods.” The real-name system can be more dangerous to keep using in the future. Then, is the false-name system safe? It depends on the future. There are lots of suggestions to improve the false-name system including ones we have mentioned in the article. When they are well-applied to the false-name system, an improved false-name system will make the Internet an even more active and public field of discussion.
An interview with two administrators of Gwangjang
Q1: Please explain how the online UOS community, Gwangjang, is managed. Sim: Gwangjang is managed by five managers and one cafe master. There are more board keepers for each posting board. We, the managers, are doing our best to provide a fair and open online place to UOS students.. Ahn: There are five managers of Gwangjang, and the management of the posting boards is designated to a board keeper.
Q2: To register to Gwangjang, UOS students have to verify their identities through WISE, the university’s student management system. Can managers and board keepers look at the users’ personal information? Sim: When Gwangjang users verify their UOS registration through WISE, their personal information is coded to secure their identities. Therefore, we cannot look at Gwangjang users’ personal information.
Q3: UOS students have to verify their UOS registration through WISE. However, they can edit their student number and major on ‘My Information,’ a user information category, without any authentication process. Why is not there any verification process for altering My Information, even though it is expected that some people may exploit it? Ahn: ‘My Information’ used to be a kind of additional tool for verifying users’ identities. However, after we adopted WISE for the identity verification process, the category became useless and unnecessary.
Q4: Then, what kind of user identity system is being used in Gwangjang? And do you think the system is well suited to establish a sense of etiquette on Gwangjang? Sim: We do not demand more personal information from users, since many of them are UOS students, and they have already finished verifying their identities through WISE. I think that nicknames are enough to maintain etiquette on Gwangjang. The conscience of users and managers is more important in keeping Gwangjang free of online wrongdoings. Ahn: On Gwangjang, managers require users to verify themselves through WISE, if they are UOS students. I think that this level of identity verification works well in supporting our efforts to respect Gwangjang users’ freedom of speech.
Q5: Gwangjang has been plagued by users’ misbehavior, such as slandering, malicious commenting, and unauthorized copyright sharing. Do you think that these illegal acts on Gwangjang have been triggered by its anonymous policy? Sim: To help you understand, Gwangjang is an online community based on nicknames. Specifically, it is not a site managed under an anonymous policy. However, since a user on Gwangjang can only use one ID, the community cannot be slammed for such online misbehaviors. Ahn: The anonymity of Gwangjang may have very well influenced such online illegal acts in the community. However, these have to be blamed on users themselves. Many of the users on Gwangjang, who committed such aforementioned misbehaviors, did so without knowing that what they were doing was illegal. The situation would not have changed, even if the real-name system had been adopted in Gwangjang.
Q6: Recently, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled against the Internet real-name system. What do you think of this court’s ruling? In your opinion, what kind of identity system is needed for the Internet? Sim: Since the Internet real-name system was implemented, Korean companies were forced to save and manage Internet users’ personal information, much more than necessary. This has finally led to the leakage of personal information, thereby hampering Korean companies’ overseas business expansion of online services. Therefore, to foster the nation’s development in IT business, the Internet real-name system has to be abolished. In addition, online illegal acts could be punished more harshly by strengthening online surveillance and punishments against such behaviors. Ahn: I think that the Internet real-name system has yielded no significant breakthroughs, since there has not been any particular change in the online world. The system did not even violate the freedom of speech on the Internet. In Korean Internet culture, it is extremely difficult to eternally eradicate online illegal acts. I think that a more secure certificate authentication system should be adopted instead, as an alternative.
We can easily see from this interview that it is natural to express doubts about the effectiveness of the real-name system. There is no doubt about its ineffectiveness when it comes to considering portal sites like NATE or NAVER and Social Network Services (SNS) like Twitter or Facebook. There are many malicious comments even though they use the real-name system.