By Kim Tong-hyung
Korea, in its permanent hunger for international respect, is always looking for the next thing to claim as a first in the world.
And a major source of pride is the country's advancements in Internet services and infrastructure, with the exceptionally high broadband penetration rate considered as a uniquely Korean feature.
However, in a country that boasts itself as a ``global Internet power,'' the debate over online freedom ignited by the government efforts to strengthen Web monitoring makes one wonder whether policymakers are missing out on the 21st century.
A draft law pushed by the Korean Communication Commission (KCC), the country's telecommunication and broadcasting regulator, that imposes strengthened identification policies for Internet users is sparking widespread protests from the public and media.
The revised bill, which was put on notice last Thursday, mandates all Internet sites with more than 100,000 daily visitors to verify the identities of their users.
This is a stronger version of the current telecommunications law that imposes identity verification for sites with more than 300,000 visitors.
The designated sites require subscribers to submit their private information such as I-PIN, an alternative identification system for online users, and also reveal their real name or register nicknames when they post comments.
Internet companies must disclose the identities of the users accused of cyber attacks when victims seek to sue for libel or privacy infringement.
Following a review by the Regulatory Reform Committee (RRC), the KCC is expecting the revised law to be enforced as early as October.
The KCC hired a group of 10 people, including industry experts and scholars, for a project to research the impact of the strengthened identity verification system. However, despite the group having yet to produce a study, regulators are fast-tracking the bill anyway.
``I think the KCC feels the pressure to get things done before the inspection of government agencies by the National Assembly,'' said one of the members of the study group.
Under the new rules, the number of Internet sites required to identify their users increases from the current 37 ― 16 Internet portals, six online video sites and 15 news sites ― to 268.
By rough calculations, this would mean that nearly 75 percent of Korea's Internet population will be forced to submit their private information when using online services, compared to the current 52 percent.
``The real changes are expected to come next year, as daily visitors are counted by the average numbers of the previous three months," said Im Cha-sik, an official at the KCC's network policy division.
``It's not that the private information gathered by Internet companies will be accessed by anybody. The portals will only provide them when victims of cyber attacks push for legal action, following approval by the KCC,'' he said.
The government, which first introduced the identity verification policy last year, claims that the measures are essential to curb cyber attacks and other negative online behavior.
However, critics argue that the revised law is a strong threat to the freedom of speech on the Internet and could be abused as a tool for censorship.
Another controversial provision of the KCC bill is the mandating of portals to suspend the publishing of articles deemed fraudulent or slanderous for a minimum of 30 days while a media arbitration body rules on the legitimacy of the complaints.
For example, should a blogger or online journalist write a post criticizing the government, the new rules will have Web sites immediately pull the articles for a month if they receive a complaint.
Due to the unclear definition of cyber bullying and malicious online messages, there is a danger that authorities might use their power arbitrarily, critics said.
``The discussions about the freedom of expression on the Internet and identity verification systems are based on a logic that views Internet users as potential law violators,'' said Jeong Dong-hoon, a professor of the media department at Kwangwoon University.
``Despite previous efforts to strengthen identity verification, the spread of malicious messages, misleading information and other problems caused by online anonymity continues to exist. It's hard to find a logical reason to justify the government's moves for stronger censorship,'' he said.
The KCC admits that the identity verification system has so far had a limited impact on curbing cyber bullying since its introduction in July last year, saying that the number of ``malicious'' messages reduced by only about 2 percent.
However, in something of a Freudian slip, government officials are even using that as logic to back their move to strengthen identity checks.
``If malicious messages were reduced only by 2 percent, can we really say that the identity verification system is suppressing the freedom of expression on the Internet?'' asks Im.
Since kicked in the teeth by bloggers criticizing its decision to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports, the Lee Myung-bak government has been moving to strengthen Web monitoring.
Internet company Daum was ordered to delete some of the content posted by anti-government bloggers who had led an online campaign to pressure companies to stop providing advertisements to conservative newspapers backing the beef deal. And prosecutors recently indicted 24 people charged with leading the movement.
``Rather then using I-PIN, real names or nicknames, the essence of the identity verification system is that law enforcement authorities can access private information of Internet users basically whenever they want,'' said an official from the civic group, Citizen's Action Network.
``This isn't even consistent with the current law that restricts telecommunication companies from revealing private information of subscribers unless ordered to by court," he said.