His screen name was Minerva, and he wrote on Agora, an online forum hosted by Daum, one of Korea’s top Internet portals. In September last year, he predicted that the investment bank Lehman Brothers would collapse. When it did, five days later, he became a cyber prophet, an Internet Nostradamus. Minerva then predicted that the Korean won would fall against the dollar by 50 won a day in the week of Oct. 6. He was right. Of course, not all of his predictions proved to be correct, but the few that were were enough to create a fanbase.
With rumors of his “predictions” circulating the web like wildfire, netizens looked for all of his posts, searching for clues about his identity. Many of his posts criticized the Korean government and the economy. People speculated that he was a learned man- at least in his 50s- perhaps a government official with inside information or a retired person who used to work in the finance industry. Mainstream media dubbed him the “Economic President of the Internet.”
His critique of the government annoyed authorities, and when he wrote on Dec. 29 that the government forced financial companies to stop buying dollars in order to boost the value of the won, the government issued a denial and went into investigation who this mysterious figure was. In Korea, spreading false information on the Internet can result in a prison sentence of up to five years or a 50 million won fine (about $37,000). These regulations are relatively new and are seeking to be updated, especially after a number of recent cases involving false rumors on the Internet led to suicides (example: suicide of actress Choi Jin-sil.)
The authorities got a warrant and tracked him down with his IP address, arrested him, and while not disclosing his entire name, informed the public of his status. Being a country obsessed with higher education and academic credentials, Koreans were shocked to find that Minerva, with all his knowledge of the economy, was an unemployed 31-year old man who had graduated from a two-year community college situated in a rural area of Korea. Prosecutors said that he obtained all his financial knowledge from the web and that they were not original. They pointed out that he was the “king of cut-and-paste” and that his posts were word-by-word compilations of information from financial blogs and less-known news sites. They admitted however, that while none of his posts were original, he had done a very nice job of editing the information in a logical manner.
Upset over credentials more than arrest
Foreign media is reporting more about Minerva’s rights and freedom of speech on the Web, but locals seem to be more upset about being lied to. This may be somewhat hard to understand for those who don’t know Korean culture, but the general public’s response over Minerva’s arrest is focusing more on disbelief of his credentials rather than worries of speech opression.
Many were upset that Minerva had lied about his identity–he had described himself as a former securities firm employee with a master’s degree from the US. After learning that he was not the person they thought him to be, some people started questioning whether or not it was the same person who had posted under the name Minerva– pointing out that the style and content quality of his later posts were not consistant with those of his earlier ones. He had also recently been featured in a monthly news magazine but he claimed that he had never given the interview, arousing suspicions of possible imposers.
Freedom of Speech and Anonymity on the Web
Many academics, lawyers, and human rights groups in Korea are concerned that the arrest of Minerva will empower the government to enforce stronger laws regarding content posted on the web. (Korea does not ensure freedom of speech in its constitution and has a history of struggle between media and government.) In addition to a pending amendment on punishment regarding defamatory and false speech on the Web, there are also legislative motions that would require all websites to “register” writers and authenticate personal information so that anything that is posted can ultimately be traced back to its origin.
Some scholars, however, said that this incident reflects a challenge that we all face and that perhaps Korea’s debates on regulating speech on the Web are happening earlier than other countries because of its high broadband penetration. (Most homes in Korea have a 100mbps Internet connection in the city, 10mbps for extremely rural areas; compare this with 8 to 16 mbps offered by Verizon and Comcast in the US) In an interview with the Yonhap News Agency, Sung Dong-gyu, a journalism professor at ChungAng Univ. said,
Internet culture has developed on the prerequisite of anonymity, but now that it has ripened, it is only natural that the question of responsibility arise. If Minerva’s [web] activities began to have social influence, then he must be responsible for his words.
No one is sure, however, where to draw the line.
Update: the Korean-language Seoul News reports that Minerva had been employed twice before and was scheduled to work for another company but was currently restin in-between jobs, and that he was indignant that prosecutors portrayed him as a bum.