Korean Govt experiences first-hand the fickleness of online media

Having been helped by Internet based support to get into power, the South Korean government is considering regulating online media following this year's American beef import protests.

In South Korea, the world's most online country (by percentage), the Internet has become a tool of politics as much as it has a tool for the everyday Web surfer. When a former CEO took the reins of the country earlier this year, it was effective use of the Internet which contributed to his rise to power. According to Reuters, the power that helped the new president Lee Myung-bak take power is now threatening the ongoing survival of his government.

Dubbed 'infodemics' by the president, the government is concerned about the use of the Internet to spread malicious rumours and misinformation that can lead to very real-world effects, such as the recent protests against American beef imports into the country. It was the government's decision to lift long term bans against the beef imports that led to the online speculation and eventual protests.

South Korea's government asserts that the rampant speculation and distorted rumours being reported as fact on a number of blogs and forums was what was responsible for the protests, and not the turning over of the ban against imports. The ban against American beef was initially put in place due to a fear of contaminated beef entering the Korean market. Opponents argue that the market could be seen as a dumping ground for beef that was contaminated with mad cow disease, BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). A general opposition to the lifting of the ban was accelerated by rumours and speculation being reported as fact on the Internet. In essence a country-wide game of Chinese (Korean) Whispers took place and the distorted facts became dominant in the minds of Koreans.

It is to counter this problem that the Korean government is arguing that controls on online media need to be put in place. No specifics have been put forward as to how such controls might be implemented or their supposed effectiveness but the eventual goal is to have a similar sort of control and regulation over Internet media as it presents over offline media.

Combined with a recent spate of successful hacks against major Korean sites, where sensitive personal data for many Koreans was stolen, and the government's arguments make some sense. Critics are afraid that these steps are just the first of many designed to cut back on the freedoms that South Koreans have increasingly had over the last few decades.

If there is any country where laws regulating online activity would demonstrate their effectiveness, it is South Korea. Time will tell whether the Korean government will have any measure of success in implementing any such laws, but it will be a valuable case study for other countries attempting to implement their own online activity laws, including Australia.

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Carl Jongsma

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