Suicide spurs Internet debate

Law would tighten Web controls in South Korea

SEOUL -- The dispute over free speech on the Web in South Korea is heating up as a government that once promoted "Internet democracy" debates passage of a law that could tighten controls on Web users.

The controversy was sparked this month after actress Choi Jin-shil committed suicide, purportedly in reaction to rumors spread about her online. It marked the latest in a string of such Korean celebrity deaths that included transgender TV star Jang Chae-won and model-actor Kim Ji-hu, who killed himself after local news sites attacked him following his coming out as gay.

Lawmakers in the ruling Grand National Party said the government is looking to revise cyber law to mete out harsher punishment for online slander.

If the law, which might be tabbed the Choi Jin-sil law, is put into effect, real-name registrations would be mandatory for most news Web sites, and operators of all Internet portals would be required to delete opinions found to be defamatory within 24 hours.

Critics explain that the law, if passed, would restrict freedom of speech in a country where more than 90% of households have access to broadband Internet services.

Since taking office in February, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak has been particularly unpopular among the young Internet users that made up a core constituency of his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.

Many of them view Lee's plan as a politically motivated scheme to take control of the Internet. They argue that while Lee is pointing to a rise in cyber crime -- a recent survey showed about 25,000 so-called cyber insults reported since 2005 -- his real goal is to squelch political debate from his liberal opponents.

"Their focus is not on preventing slander and training cyber etiquette but on regulating public opinion," said Kwak Dong-soo, professor of information communication at the Korea Cyber University.

Others point out that the roots of the debate predate Lee.

Kathy Moon, an associate fellow at the Asia Society in New York, said the proposed cyber law reminds her of the prohibitions on netizen feedback seen toward the end of the last presidential election.

At that time, the National Election Commission under then-President Roh barred online postings critical of the candidates, threatening penalties of up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($25,000).

Jonathan Landreth in New York contributed to this report.