A 43-year old man in South Korea was arrested by police on April 30 for alleged illegal election activity, Korean media sources report. (Being arrested in Korea does not mean jail, but when the police bring the suspect in for formal charges and investigation based on prior informal investigation) The Seoul District Police Office said that the man was charged for conducting a survey about people’s political preferences regarding a regional election and then making the survey results available to the public. According to the police, the man, whom they only identified as Kim (about a quarter of Koreans are Kim) conducted a survey between Jan. 19 and March 26 earlier this year through Twtpoll, a survey website that is linked to Twitter. The survey asked 1) Which party do you support? 2) Which candidate of Gyeonggi Province do you support? (Gyeonggi Province is a large province in Korea and is somewhat famous for its comparatively progressive policies, somewhat like California is in the U.S.)
Police said that the problem was not in the fact that Kim displayed the results of the poll, but because he did not provide any details of the sampling population, sampling method, or error rate. The Korean Fair Election Laws state (article 108) that any poll regarding public opinion of an election must have proper sources, such as who conducted the survey, where it was conducted, when, etc.
The Korean National Election Commission, which is a regulatory/monitoring body for elections, found the survey and repeatedly sent him notices, asking him to take down the survey results, but he refused to do so until police began an investigation on March 26; the first day of the investigation, he took down the survey. Kim is arguing, however, that the National Election Commission told him to take down the survey by the 26th and that the police should have waited until the end of the day because he was going to take it down anyways (that’s what he says).
Although the details of the case clearly show that Kim did indeed violate election laws, a lot of Korean netizens are making this case an issue of free speech. In Korea, the term ‘Netizen’ is used for the people who express their opinions on the Internet, especially discussion forums. Although there is no knowing of how representative the Netizen population is of the actual Korean population, media like to use Netizens as a proxy for all Koreans, especially on juicy issues. Kim says that he expects the punishment to be light, and that he will be fined a certain amount, but given that this is a free speech issue, he intends to take it to the Supreme Court.
Free speech is indeed an issue in South Korea. Although there is no overt censorship like China, expressing political opinions, especially during election season, is subject to a lot of election-related laws. A bunch of new laws were added to the list a few years ago, when the government realized that cyberspace also needed to be regulated. During election time, candidates are restricted to certain activities. Also, as a citizen, you are allowed to praise the candidate or party you support, but are not allowed to badmouth them without a logical argument.
All of this sounds unreasonable, but it is somewhat important to know the background of how these rules were created. A lot of the tightening regulations on Internet speech in Korea has actually only happened in the past few years because certain so-called “Netizens” were abusing the Internet. Cyberbulling, defamation, spreading false rumors and plain meanness was such a rampage, it was not only just a political manner…several celebrities including Choi Jin-sil even committed suicide because of the cyber terrorism.
In reaction to a chain of terrible events and obvious abuse of free speech, regulations on speech became tighter: now, most major websites require Koreans to log in with their national ID number (kind of like a social security number). Although they can choose to post under a screen name, guaranteeing pseudonymity, the government hopes that this will make people more responsible about what they say.
However, at the end of the day, there is restriction on speech and no true anonymity. The lack of Internet free speech in Korea has been criticized strongly by people in the West, and I totally understand where they are coming from, but perhaps some communities need tighter regulation (at least before they begin to mature). Think of why we don’t let children drink until they are 19. It is because they need to have self-regulatory skills and be able to manage their alcohol. I think of the Korean Internet scene as a 16-year old. It’s vibrant, creative, full of new ideas and passionate, but petty, mean, and extremely fickle.
Hopefully Kim’s mistake won’t make the government impose any Twitter-specific laws. Also, Korean Netizens should not make Kim’s arrest an issue of free speech. Kim had the right to publish his survey if only he had provided the proper sources. Maybe error margin and other statistical significance is hard to estimate for a normal guy, but he could have been clearer about who was doing the survey and who was participating.