Korea’s online political campaign scene is quite restrictive compared to what is going on in the United States during the run-up to next year’s American presidential elections. While the two countries are similar in that politicians see the Internet as a means of connecting with voters, Koreans face tough regulations that are unheard of in the more free-wheeling American on-line world.
Some critics see the rules as a restriction on free speech.
A recent video uploaded on the video Web site YouTube portraying U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in a harshly negative light is an example. The clip shows Ms. Clinton on a huge screen addressing an expressionless audience. A female athlete then tosses a hammer at the screen, shattering it. The video ends with a frame that contains the Web address of one of her main opponents, Senator Barack Obama. Last weekend, the maker of the video was identified as an employee of the firm that designed Mr. Obama’s Web site. Subsequently, the video clip creator wrote on a blog that neither his design firm nor the Obama campaign were aware of his role in creating the pseudo-advertisement.
But before his identity was revealed, the impact of the video was so huge that Mr. Obama made an official statement that he had nothing to do with the clip and Ms. Clinton responded to the clip through a media interview.
This incident contrasts with Korea, which regulates videos with political content on public Web sites. The National Election Commission bans all political campaigning before the designated campaign period. Because of this, a very popular video comparing former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak to a well-known television comedian was ordered deleted from several portal sites by the commission. In its ruling it reasoned that the video could be serving as a pre-election campaign advertisement.
A video of Park Geun-hye playing the piano and another of Sohn Hak-gyu on a hiking trek were also taken down from public Web sites for the same reason.
The Seoul Central Prosecutors office announced on Feb. 20 that it would create a special digital investigation team to monitor such illegal pre-campaign activities. “Election laws don’t contain specific regulations regarding user-created content but any content on the Internet that supports or opposes a specific party or candidate before campaign season is illegal,” they said in a statement.
The election commission is also monitoring the Web. “Any videos that contain support or criticism of other people or parties are not acceptable if they are posted on sites other than private Web sites. For videos posted on portal sites, we ask the Internet portal service provider to delete them ― there have been about a dozen so far,” said Kim Yeong-heon, an official at the commission.
Realizing that Internet content, however, could potentially be a problem, the commission recently created more detailed clauses for user-created political content on the Web. When the pre-campaign term begins on November 27, Koreans will be allowed to write comments or post videos on portals, but only under certain conditions. The long list of restrictions includes the insistence that the posted content must be positive, personal opinions are allowed but persuasion and outright criticism are banned. Users may not create political parodies or comedic content for humor sites or post the same content on multiple Web sites.
Lee Seung-jin, a spokesman for Daum, one of the major portal Web sites in Korea, said that the restrictions on online content reflect the bigger picture of freedom of speech here. “Korea may have a high Internet usage rate, but the United States is more open about what other people say,” he said. “Internet users and politicians in the United States are able to freely criticize and accept criticism while in Korea, social consensus on what can or cannot be said regarding politics on the Internet is not yet formed.”
Because rules on campaigning are general and don’t cover in detail what can be done, many portal operators are putting off the creation of separate election pages.
Currently Yahoo! Korea has a presidential election page, but the three top portals ― Naver, Daum, and Empas/Cyworld ― won’t pen their special election pages until some time after the first half of this year. None of the three have set a date for the pages yet.
By comparison, although the U.S. presidential elections are in November next year, the popular MySpace service opened a special section last Monday with links to candidates’ Web sites and polls and functions for donations. Korean political candidates are banned from posting videos on major portals, but American candidates are not subject to such restriction. Ms. Clinton, for instance, even has a special area in the three-dimensional game/cyber environment Second Life.
“The media environment has changed but the election laws have not,” said Lee Chang-eun, chief editor of Daejabo, an online political newspaper. “Current laws cater to traditional paper media.”
Wohn Dong-hee for JoongAng Daily