By Cho Jin-seo
Most people do not think that anonymous postings on the Internet are a reliable source of information. But the recent outburst of anti-U.S. beef rumors on Naver and Daum Web portal sites are rapidly generating controversy on the necessity and side effects of free speech in the online world.
Police said Tuesday that they have identified several ``netizens'' who posted inflammatory, provocative and untrue comments on Web sites about the beef import issue. Their postings led to the uprising of thousands of middle and high school students and encouraged them to hold street rallies, police said.
Among them was one who uses the nickname ``Andante,'' who started the online campaign to impeach President Lee Myung-bak on Daum. More than 1.3 million Daum users have signed up in the campaign so far. A massive online crowd swarmed the police Web site on Wednesday to protest the investigation of Andante, paralyzing the server temporarily.
``I too signed on for the impeachment campaign, so arrest me with Andante,'' said a citizen named Jung Sang-hyun on the board, even though the police board identifies users with their name and resident identification number. Thousands others joined the online protest, many of them not hesitating to use insults toward the police and the president.
The online frenzy was initiated last month, when anonymous messages were spread on mobile phones and on Internet sites, which said that a victim of mad cow disease had been found in Korea. Some other online rumors claimed that mad cow disease could be contracted through tap water or the air or via kissing. Scientists have rubbished these rumors but nevertheless many students came out to street rallies holding pickets that read ``I'm only 15 and I don't want to die now,'' for example.
Daum Communication, the operator of Daum Web portal, said that it cannot confirm whether it is cooperating with the police in the investigation on the spreading of the rumors. But the company said that the president impeachment campaign itself is not against its censorship regulation, even though it contains expression such as, ``Even dogs will laugh at Lee's English speeches.''
``We have an automatic filtering system on certain words and expressions. And for some special cases like this, our monitoring team carefully reviews the postings,'' said Jung Ji-eun, a spokeswoman for Daum. ``The fact that it is not deleted means that it met our monitoring standards.''
Some have begun to demand the government to force all the portal sites to identify their users with their real name for every posting, so people will be discouraged from spreading false rumors. But Jung said this wouldn't help.
``Identifying names cannot be a solution. We believe that users themselves have the ability of self-censorship, though we haven't found the best solution for it,'' she said.
On the other side, Internet users also suspect portal sites of manipulating public opinion. Some insist that Daum has sized down the number of the online petition for Lee's impeachment at the request of the government ― something Daum flatly refutes. Naver, which has been suspected of siding with the president on many issues such as land speculation and corruption, also says it has not been tampering.
``We don't have any reason and any pressure to do such things about this sensitive issue,'' said spokeswoman Roh Su-jin. ``It's technically impossible as well (to manipulate Internet boards).''