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-Viewpoint on the Legislation for Communication Decency

Internet Rights and Civil Society Movements

Special Report from PeaceNet in Korea

October, 2000

In Korea, the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) is currently attempting to regulate cyberspace. These attempts, in part, respond to the real needs of people and society in general, yet they are also closely related to seeking the self-interests of the ministry itself. In last a decade, as Korea's communication infrastructure, was being built, the MIC could have handled a sizable sum of the national budget for these huge projects and become one of the most influential departments within the government. However, today when information technology and communication is widely available and used by most people the status and role of the MIC has sharply changed. As the electronic communication network becomes integrated into our daily lives, only the management of the infrastructure continues to be the routine work of the MIC. For example, the use of new technology for education has become the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and electronic commerce has become the work of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy. To make matters worse, cooperation among the concerned departments is rarely achieved. When the recent governmental organization reform plan was suggested, officials at the MIC must have been shocked to find that the MIC was removed from the list of government departments.

Last month, the MIC announced this plan for revising the existing "Law for Promoting the use of the information and communication network.", that has been coined "Law for Imposing Order in Cyberspace" by NGOs due to its clearly bad intentions. The total number of provisions in the this revised bill totals nearly three times the provisions in the present law. The new provisions specify three fields in which the MIC wil play a role: the protection of privacy, content regulation, and the management of Internet domain names. Since the public hearing of this revised bill on July 20, over thirty or more NGOs have strongly denounced this bill because it could lead the MIC to censor  cyberspace and to infringe on the basic rights of free speech of netizens. Many cyber-communities and individuals voiced their fierce opposition to the bill in various ways - some have written down their messages repeatedly on the bulletin board of the MIC homepage and other people had excercised a virtual sit-in on a planned date and time by repeatedly pressing their browser's reload button while visiting the MIC website. Once, when the MIC web server temporarily crushed, and it blamed the accident on this online demonstration activity and charged the protestors with disturbance of governmental official activities. However, after investigation, the cause was confirmed to be the fault of the equipment in the MIC server system.

In the midst of debates, of the most discussed issue was the rating system. The MIC has argued that they devised the autonomous rating system, but according to this bill if there is content to harmful minors, which is to be judged by a subsidiary organization of the authority, they can enforce a particular rating level to the site as part of their  legal duty. And this duty could be applied to any kind of information source over all server systems within Korea regardless of whether they are for commercial or noncommercial or individual purposes. Thus, it is undoubtably censorship over cyberspace. However, if applied it will be ineffective, because it cannot touch information sources located out side of Korea. And if harmful sites targeting Koreans want to continue to operate, they will move their server to a foreign country so as to escape  legal sanctions within Korea.

In addition, Some revised provisions of the bill, especially concerning privacy protection, are favourable to business groups' interests rather than consumers' interests. For example, the revisions ease the rigid conditions of the present law concerning the transfer of personal information during merges and acquisitions, and maintains the continuous usability of the collected personal information even after the original purpose of the collection has already been completed. Moreover, this bill gives the authority to manage the Korean internet domain name (.KR) to the Ministry of Information and Communication, and establishes the dispute arbitration committee as a legal body. This structure of internet governance is very unique in the world and upsets the present civic decision making process within KRNIC. In recent days, the MIC has additionally suggested a bill to protect the public communication infrastructure by it prohibiting a certain pattern of online demonstration - the action of repeatedly pressing the reload button of web browsers while visiting a certain site. The MIC believes that this  behavior threatens the security of public facilities. However, this behavior is a very well-known online action and example of free speech in cyberspace.

Most of these issues are very new and strange to the general population. Even in civil society groups, these issues are only now emerging. There are still many different perspectives and opinions on these issues among NGOs. Many of these civic groups don't know the characteristics of these new issues nor how to deal with them. Considering this environment, the government's strong drive to regulate cyberspace is quite reckless. Online communities, who have not yet had any relations with the existing NGOs, responded voluntarily to this drive, which in turn stimulated NGOs to take concrete initiatives against the government's actions. However, how to regulate or deregulate cyberspace requires to the convergence of public opinion from diverse social groups. It means that the present NGOs should not simply cooperate with online communities but also promote the awakening of these new issues within civil society. Now, the most urgent task is obviously to oppose these proposed bills but in the long term, civil society groups should form a network so that new, emerging challenges can be seriously discussed and converge a variety of opinions can be gathered on those issues within our society. Cyberspace is rapidly emerging as a new world for by civil society movements.