Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

“Free speech and witch hunts”

Posted in People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 14, 2005

Another fascinating article about South Korea, the land that lives in the future:

Earlier this year, the photograph of a young South Korean woman who failed to clean up after her dog in a railway carriage appeared on the internet. Web-users throughout the country co-operated to reveal her identity, and for weeks the woman, quickly dubbed the “dogshit girl”, became the number one hate figure among the country’s cyber community. Vicious and defamatory messages appeared on the internet and her university website was bombarded with hate mail.

To many technologists around the world South Korea is the ultimate social laboratory. What happens there is what will begin to happen in other countries in a few years’ time. That is because the country has the world’s highest percentages of the population using broadband internet access and 3G telephones.

This is what happens when everyone is on the internet all the time, and when so many people know how to publish their thoughts.

Of course, this is a side effect of a good thing. In the the Philippines, the corrupt Estrada government was peacefully removed simply by citizens forwarding SMS text messages to each other – “wear black and come to the main square” – and then carrying out the instructions of the message. That was in the ’90s. And in the ’80s the spread of video cameras amongst citizens meant the Rodney King’s beating was documented and shared amongst citizens, creating pressure for reform at the Los Angeles Police Department.

Good things can happen when citizens have the tools to fight governments.

But what happens when they use those tools to attack each other? Over the last century democracies have developed laws for regulating the media to stop slandering and libel. In some cases those laws may be too harsh – Britain’s laws are notriously pro-plainitif, meaning that the defendant must prove that she or he did not commit libel. But over time and repeated lawsuits the media and those in the public eye have established a truce over what can and cannot be said.

What can laws do to produce such a truce amongst citizens? The South Korean government is trying out som laws:

One proposal would require Korean web users to register their personal information before leaving messages on bulletin boards[…] However, critics of the “real-names system” oppose the plan, saying it undermines the freewheeling nature of the internet and would suppress legitimate criticism and minority opinions.

But I do not think these will work. Perhaps what will evolve are social norms. In the USA today people do not spit in the street – while they still do so in China. In the 19th century there were anti-spitting laws in the USA, along with numerous street signs reminding people of this. Today the signs are unnecessary – if I were to spit in the streets of Bethesda the suburban stares would be considerable punishment. And when a couple kisses in the USA passers by give them privacy – while in the Gulf they would be stared at and reprimanded.

So my guess is that in five to ten years’ time the South Koreans will have developed an ettiquette for posting such photographs and for responding on online forums. They will be polite and give each other privacy (I hope).

But what happens when the rest of the world finally joins them in internet usage and begins to make the same mistakes again? Will their reaction to rude postings be the same as Bahrainis’ reactions to particularly bad drivers, i.e. that they must be foreign? Will they say “damn those American posters” as we say “damn those Saudi drivers”?

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