Sulli’s Law

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Ja­son Lim Ja­son Lim (ja­son­[email protected]) is a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based ex­pert on in­no­va­tion, lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture.

An­other suc­cess­ful young Korean celebrity com­mit­ted sui­cide. Sulli was a 25-year-old ac­tress who made her de­but when she was only 11 years old and joined the K-pop girl group f(x) at age 15, leav­ing the group in 2014 re­port­edly due to ma­li­cious and un­founded on­line at­tacks. Iron­i­cally and trag­i­cally, she was most re­cently the host of a TV show try­ing to ed­u­cate the pub­lic about the harms of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, even read­ing out loud some of the on­line com­ments that she has had to deal with.

The anonymity and ubiq­uity of on­line plat­forms make it too easy for peo­ple to lash out at oth­ers with­out think­ing about what im­pact it might have on them. Be­cause cy­ber­bul­lies can’t wit­ness the ef­fect of their words, they use less re­straint than they would in face-to-face sit­u­a­tions. Af­ter all, you don’t see the blood from a bro­ken nose or black eye from a fist fight. There is no mess to clean up, which makes the vi­o­lence less real. Ex­cept to the vic­tims.

In re­sponse to the so­cial out­rage, there’s talk of a “Sulli’s Law” that’s be­ing read­ied to be in­tro­duced in the Na­tional Assem­bly in early De­cem­ber to co­in­cide with the 49th day com­mem­o­ra­tion of Sulli’s death. While the ex­act lan­guage isn’t avail­able, the bill al­ready car­ries high ex­pec­ta­tions to serve as a panacea to the many ills at­trib­uted to the preva­lence of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and its malev­o­lent ef­fects on those bul­lied.

The New Al­ter­na­tive Party (my trans­la­tion), which is a re­cent off­shoot of Na­tional Assem­bly rep­re­sen­ta­tives who have left the ma­jor­ity Demo­cratic Party of Korea, pro­nounced that (my trans­la­tion) “Sulli’s death is noth­ing less than so­cial mur­der. The press com­peted in click­bait mar­ket­ing by tak­ing ad­van­tage of the daily life of a young per­son, and the por­tal sites let it go on with­out do­ing any­thing. The count­less cy­ber­bul­lies, un­der the guise of the free­dom of the press, tram­pled on Sulli’s hu­man dig­nity. Now it’s time to es­tab­lish a so­ci­etal so­lu­tion to such in­hu­mane cul­ture in line with Korea’s rep­u­ta­tion as an in­ter­net su­per­power.”

While no one dis­agrees with a law that could cut down on base­less and de­hu­man­iz­ing cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, es­pe­cially against young peo­ple, it’s all about the ex­e­cu­tion. Can you re­ally craft a law with en­force­ment mech­a­nisms prac­ti­cal enough to change peo­ple’s be­hav­ior?

Back in 2007 when there was a dawn­ing un­der­stand­ing that cy­ber­bul­ly­ing was be­com­ing a prob­lem, the Na­tional Assem­bly passed a law that man­dated that peo­ple’s real iden­ti­ties be val­i­dated through their so­cial reg­is­tra­tion num­bers and ac­tual names used in any post­ing or other on­line ac­tiv­i­ties. The driv­ing ra­tio­nale be­hind the law was that on­line anonymity af­forded a lack of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity that gave rise to ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior by the ne­ti­zens.

Talk­ing about un­in­tended con­se­quences, the law had very lit­tle im­pact on peo­ple’s on­line be­hav­ior ex­cept for vastly in­creased cy­ber­at­tacks on por­tal sites or telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies that were now stor­ing peo­ple’s sen­si­tive per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able in­for­ma­tion (SPII) that in­cluded so­cial reg­is­tra­tion num­bers; there was a par­tic­u­larly high-pro­file breach that af­fected up to 70 per­cent of Korean cit­i­zens. In 2012, the Con­sti­tu­tional Court de­clared the main parts of the law un­con­sti­tu­tional, giv­ing it a quick death.

De­bates sur­round­ing Sulli’s Law in­volve re­in­sti­tut­ing the “real name” man­date, which seems un­likely since it’s al­ready been de­ter­mined to be un­con­sti­tu­tional. Fur­ther, any law that cre­ates legally en­force­able cri­te­ria for proper speech on­line will nec­es­sar­ily face the slip­pery slope ques­tion: what speech is dis­al­lowed and who gets to de­cide? Pro­tec­tion has been the ex­cuse of many rack­e­teer­ing schemes his­tor­i­cally, in­clud­ing all the tyran­nies of the world. The line be­tween free speech and cen­sor­ship is no­to­ri­ously thin, and a demo­cratic so­ci­ety must al­ways choose on the side of free speech, even of­fen­sive speech.

But if there’s no leg­isla­tive sil­ver bul­let for hu­man be­hav­ior, where does that leave Sulli? How about tar­get­ing the tech­nol­ogy plat­forms that en­able such be­hav­ior? Why not pass a law aimed at the un­der­ly­ing logic of the click­bait mar­ket­place, a logic that’s fo­cused and am­pli­fied by the mo­nop­o­lies of the gi­ant por­tal sites that de­ter­mine which ar­ti­cles get how many eye­balls and sub­se­quent ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars?

Un­less the un­der­ly­ing in­cen­tive struc­ture is changed, you can’t ex­pect be­hav­iors to change. Just look at the fren­zied com­pe­ti­tion to cover Sulli’s death in the most lurid way pos­si­ble while at the same time de­cry­ing its tragedy.

The same in­cen­tive trans­lates into the com­ments sec­tion of por­tal sites, driv­ing peo­ple to post com­ments for shock value, in­ten­tion­ally cre­at­ing a click­bait mar­ket­place even among the com­menters. This is great for the ego of the posters who revel in the vir­tual recog­ni­tion of mak­ing it to the top of the com­ments heap, but it drives ever-moreedgy lan­guage to get at­ten­tion.

In the U.S. in 1890, the Sher­man An­titrust Act came about due to the pub­lic out­cry over mo­nop­o­lies fix­ing prices. Per­haps in Korea in 2019, Sulli’s Law could be the an­titrust law for the dig­i­tal age, break­ing up the mo­nop­o­lies that por­tal sites en­joy on price-fix­ing peo­ple’s abil­ity to ac­cess news and in­for­ma­tion.

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