South Korea’s 2007 presidential election has recently come under fire by various global blogs and media for being undemocratic. The reason: for the first time, the country’s National Election Commission (NEC) implemented strict Internet content regulation during the campaign. Internet users were not allowed to post or directly link to any comments or content that would favor or disfavor a particular candidate or party.
Many took this as a curb on free speech and a step backward in Korea’s still nascent democracy. Few, however, approached it from the broader context of why the regulations were created and if they served any democratic purpose.
I wish to explore both sides of the argument by clarifying the facts around the NEC regulations and providing the broader socio-political situation under which the rules were made.
The NEC only prohibits what it calls “campaign UCC” material. (UCC is short for user-created content, which includes all Internet content produced by the user such as pictures, videos, web posts, replies, etc.)
The NEC distinguishes between “campaign UCC” versus personal opinion.
“Campaign UCC” are UCC’s that contain campaign-related content that show a blatant intent to help or hinder a particular candidate or party from being elected. Some examples of “campaign UCC” material according to the NEC Web site are: short comments like “Lets help candidate A get elected,” long posts with selectively clipped criticism of a select candidate, or videos containing one-sided material. Posting or directly linking to such UCC is prohibited. Violators are legally punished and can face up to a maximum of three years in jail or a 30 million won (approx. $33,000) fine.
In contrast, personal opinion consists of content with strictly subjective or abstract viewpoints on a candidate or party. For example, short comments like “I want candidate A to be elected” or “I like candidate A” and long posts or videos that cover both candidates are all permissible. However, when such personal opinions are repeatedly posted or forwarded to the extent that it is obvious there is intent to influence the election decision, then it falls under the “campaign UCC” category and is prohibited.
The Case for the NEC Regulations
The NEC regulations were prompted by a very unique socio-political situation in South Korea. In the previous 2002 presidential elections, the country witnessed for the first time the substantial power of the Internet on politics. President Roh was dubbed an “Internet President,” and the 180 degree turnaround on election day fueled by younger generation Internet users shocked both citizens and politicians.
The Internet’s such power awed some, but also scared others. Especially as support for the elected President Roh continued to decline through his term, many became wary that the Internet – with its tremendous amplifying power and speed of mobilization– might again fall prey to partisan propaganda and produce unfavorable results.
The NEC regulations came as a response to such worries. The reason the laws were implemented was not to censor debate, but rather, to protect it. The NEC recognized that at times, in order to guard against partisan or biased voices from taking over substantial, qualitative political debate, some censorship is necessary. In this sense, the origin of the regulations was very much democratic.
The Case against the NEC Regulations
On the other hand, users who have been charged by the NEC are clearly infuriated about having their right to free speech violated. In various interviews with the Korea Times, The Korea Herald and other mainstream newspapers, netizens have expressed how they are shocked to not have the right to post whatever they want on what should be personal Internet space. The fact that the regulations extend to personal blogs is particularly alarming. The argument is that not all of the Internet can be treated like a public space for deliberation; personal blogs, homepages, and other domains must remain private territory that is off-limits from the government.
Freedom vs. Equality
Ultimately, South Korea’s case of Internet censorship boils down to a values debate between freedom and fairness (or equality). The two values, both the pillars of democracy, are infamous for frequently colliding with each other. The question is: do we uphold freedom of speech and risk a lower quality public debate, or do we consent to some federal regulation for purposes of maintaining an equal playing field in the public forum?
Owen Fiss, author of The Irony of Free Speech, offers some insight on how to strike a balance between these two values in the context of free speech. His line of argument falls more in line with the NEC’s. In some cases, in order to protect freedom of speech, which posits that all voices and parties should have the right to have a say in public debate, federal intervention is necessary. The question is if the Internet, in the context of political elections, falls into that special category of cases.
An interview with an official in the NEC on such questions is forthcoming.