~ Archive for Cyber Culture ~

Arrest of Korean Blogger Rekindles Debates of Freedom of Speech on Web

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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.

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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.

Music without intermediaries

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Did “video kill the radio star“? Record labels may be dying, but music is thriving. People have easier access to more music– more than they can listen to in a lifetime. More artists are making themselves heard, and are communicating directly with their listeners.

“We may be coming to a world of entertainment where we don’t need intermediaries,” says Ken Ledeen, co-author of Blown to Bits. In a recent private discussion, he said, “What you see is dying gasp. They are trying to hold on to something that won’t exist in 30 years.”

For the majority of musicians, making money was never in selling albums. Think beyond pop music- how many classical musicians make money from their recordings? Except for a small number of international stars, most musicians don’t even get a deal with record label. Their livelihood until now has been based in people’s appreciation for music in the offline world.

Of course, it has never been easy for musicians- after all, they are artists and the monetary compensation for art is on more of a subjective scale than any other industry. But the Internet is not to be blamed. If anything, it should be lauded for making it easier for musicians to find gigs and be able to promote themselves on the web without an agency. Musicians should be making more active use of the Internet- perhaps integrating webcasting to conduct remote lessons, or sharing interpretations of songs.

Who takes responsibility for web content?

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A 19-year old living in Florida who went by the screen name of CandyJunkie overdosed on pills while broadcasting himself in real time. This webcast went on for hours on Justin.tv before viewers became alarmed and informed the police. The “broadcasting” ends with police barging into the room.

This story is extremely disturbing, not only because of the content, but also because it brings us back to the big question of whether or not someone should be responsible for content on web sites.

With increased bandwidth and higher broadband penetration, more amateur videos and live video streams are becoming available on the Internet. One wonders, however, how the industry will deal with content that contains images of crime, violence, sex, and other material that could be potentially hazardous to certain audiences such as children.

 Justin.tv relies on a user-regulatory system where people can flag questionable content. It also has a list of rules in its terms of use, including the ban of content that a “reasonable person could deem to be objectionable, offensive, indecent, pornographic, invasive of another’s privacy, harassing, threatening, embarrassing, distressing, vulgar, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or otherwise inappropriate.”

Not all websites, however, have their own regulations on how to deal with content that was generated by outside users. In the case of Zeran v. America Online, for example, AOL was found by the court to have no liability for false, defamatory content posted on its site. In fact, AOL didn’t even bother to remove the postings for a long time (even though an innocent man was receiving death threats because of the posts) until exposed by the media.

Certainly, different countries have different approaches on how to deal with these issues– some require stronger responsibility of the web sites. In Italy, for example, Google employees may face charges for “failing to stop the publishing” of a video showing a disabled teenager being bullied. In South Korea, governments order services to take down content that can “threaten national security.”

But how can someone determine how detrimental the content is– and should they? Visual content regulation, until now, has mostly been self-regulated by the industry– such as the rating system of movies adopted by the Motion Picture Association. While legal experts figure out how things work out in cyberspace, we could at least encourage a self-regulatory system in the industry. The law may not require Internet services and service providers to be responsible, but the public could take on a stronger responsibility. In the case of the 19-year old, for instance, if people had disapproved of the video and alerted authorities a couple hours earlier, the boy may still be alive.

YouTube from a Child’s Perspective

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R’s little boy is four or five years old, and although he cannot fully read or write, he uses the Internet, mainly to surf YouTube. His main interest is the Beatles, and he looks up all kinds of performances by the Beatles and so forth, using the “related videos” section to look at even more videos of the Beatles.

Since his parents do not own a TV, the boy looks on YouTube to find videos of the books he reads. R says that he is different from her in that he “expects some sort of corresponding media to books.” She also noted that her son thinks that videos are only ten minutes long. (With the exception of certain organizations, regular users are limited to short videos)

Regarding “bad” content on YouTube, R is concerned more about children’s content that is dubbed over, than explicit content in itself. In other words, she is worried about swear words that are mashed with a Winnie the Pooh video rather than porn videos. (I suppose her son is a bit too young to be concerned about porn yet, thank god…) She told me that it was funny how Beatles videos would mostly be very faithful in posting the “real” audio, but that children’s animations rather carried more “bad” audio. She said that her son was watching the Polish version of Winnie the Pooh (of course, he didn’t understand it) but that she sensed that some words were swear words and asked her friend to watch the video (and the video turned out to be full of swear words).

I suppose that it is more difficult to “regulate” bad audio that is put together with innocent videos. It’s unfortunate, however, that some of that bad audio is put together with children’s videos, which children may unknowingly watch. That said, I’d rather have my son watching Disney DVDs rather than sufing YouTube- at the age of four, parents’ control of media shouldn’t be so bad.

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