By Kim Tong-hyung
The suicide death of iconic actress Choi Jin-sil has policymakers moving quickly to strengthen identity verification at Web sites to discourage cyber bullying and malicious online messages.
The 40-year-old Choi, one of the country's most popular entertainers of the past two decades, was found dead at her home in southern Seoul Thursday in an apparent suicide, and family members and friends claim she had been distressed from harassment on the Internet.
The Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, said Internet users will be required to confirm their identity to post comments or participate in online discussions at popular Web sties starting next month.
This means that users will have to type in their resident registration numbers ― a 13-digit code that indicates birth date, sex and registration site ― or I-PIN numbers, a personal identification code for online use, to leave messages.
The identity verification system is already mandated to 37 of the biggest Internet portals and online news sites that have more than 200,000 visitors in daily traffic. The KCC is looking to expand the rules to sites with more than 100,000 visitors, whose number currently reaches 178 sites.
The operators of the Web sites will be required to disclose the identities of bloggers accused of cyber attacks on request of police or victims seeking legal action, government officials said.
``It could be said that the system will be expanded to virtually all, commonly used Web sites that have message boards,'' said Kim Yeong-joo, an official from KCC's network ethics team. Granting approval by the Cabinet, the new regulations will kick in sometime in November, Kim said.
Choi's death has certainly raised national awareness on cyber bullying, but the Lee Myung-bak administration had been constantly considering new ways to monitor the Internet since being kicked in the teeth by young netizens angered over the resumption of U.S. beef imports earlier this year.
The prosecution of hardcore anti-government bloggers on portal site Daum (www.daum.net) touched off fierce controversy, as did government moves to force more Web sites to use real names of comment posters.
And the KCC plans to rewrite the telecommunications law to mandate Web sites to immediately pull any articles deemed as slanderous for a minimum 30 days before arbitration were subjected to heated debate among lawmakers.
However, with Choi's death strengthening the calls for a code of conduct for online behavior, the bill looks to have a much better chance to pass in the National Assembly.
The sentiment among bloggers area is changing ― there wasn't much resistance to the decision by Internet portals like Daum, Naver (www.naver.com) and Cyworld (www.cyworld.com) to block users from posting comments on news articles about the late actress.
In the biggest of ironies, Agora, Daum's online discussion site that had provided the seedbed for anti-government criticism just months ago, is now overflowing with articles supporting the expansion of real-name use on the Internet.
It's hard to deny that there is a need to discourage mean-spirited messages on the Internet, especially when harassment from computers is hardly a problem limited to celebrities.
According to the Supreme Court, the number of libel suits triggered by articles posted on the Internet rose to 403 last year, compared to 350 in 2006. There were 213 suits in the first half of this year alone.
However, due to the unclear definition of cyber bullying and attacks, critics argue that the government's new regulations could pose a significant threat to the freedom of online speech and may eventually open the door to cyber censorship.
``You have to believe that most netizens are capable of reinterpreting online comments as different ways of expression, rather than taking them word for word,'' said Kim Seung-su, a media professor at Chonbuk National University.
``There is a need for a code of conduct for cyber behavior, but it must be generated through self-regulation, not forced by the government. It is impossible for the government to control every comment that appears on the Internet anyway,'' he said.
Although the majority of writings on online discussion boards were about stressing the need to curb cyber bullying, some bloggers questioned whether policymakers are trying to use Choi's death as an excuse to strengthen Web surveillance.
``Choi was clearly bothered by mean-spirited online messages, but also from depression and from her painful divorce too. So should we ban divorces as well?'' wrote a blogger on Naver.
``The government never made real efforts to educate students and the general public on good cyber behavior and Internet companies never found space for self-regulation campaigns amid their thousands of banner advertisements. Strengthening surveillance is a lazy solution that is all about reacting to the problem, rather than preventing it.''