SNS Chipping Away at Real Name System

Of all Korea’s internet quirks, perhaps none has raised both domestic and international hackles like the real-name system. Implemented, at least in part, to curb the worst excesses of anonymous netizens in Korea, it has led to accusations of “big brother” politics at home, and saw YouTube (which was unwilling to have its Korean site submit to the law) make South Korea the only country in the world where users could access the site, but couldn’t post on its comment boards.

But changes in the internet landscape, prompted largely by social media, are raising questions about the viability of the whole system.

Over the last few days, Bloter has run two articles demonstrating how SNS may be undermining real-name regulations. Bloter itself had a run-in with the law in April 2010, when the Korean Communications Commission declared that Bloter’s own comment boards were subject to real-name requirements*, a stance that prompted the site to close its comment altogether. According to this story in the Hani, Bloter’s response was to allow people to leave comments via their SNS accounts (Twitter, Facebook and Me2Day). Numerous sites have since followed suit.

Quoting figures from Korean start-up Cizion (whose LiveRe offers a Disqus-like service for numerous websites in Korea), Bloter recently said that of 146 companies subject to real-name regulations, 51 were categorised as “media,” and of those, 23 now offer the “social posting” function that Bloter apparently pioneered. By allowing readers to side-step the real-name requirement, these sites, the article suggests, are operating in a kind of legal limbo.

The waters were muddied further by the KCC’s recent ruling that Korean SNS sites will no longer be subject to the real-name system either.

The story said that following repeated protests from local companies, the KCC decided last week to exempt Korean SNS services from the real-name system, so that they could compete on a more level playing field with SNS sites run from overseas.

With Korean SNS sites now freed from the real-name system, and media websites allowing readers to leave comments via SNS accounts, two obvious questions arise:

1) Are we destined to return to the netizen free-for-all that prompted the Korean government to enact the real-name system in the first place?

2) What practical purpose will the system now serve anyway?

For the first point, I’m inclined to think not. One of the more interesting things about the rise of the likes of Twitter and Facebook in Korea has been how users have been more inclined to use their real names, even when they don’t have to. I wrote a story for Yonhap last year about the rise of Twitter, and a couple of the people I spoke to (including Cizion CEO Benjamin Kim) ┬ásaid that the emergence of a voluntary “real name” culture in Twitter and Facebook had given rise to a somewhat more responsible and moderate tone in much online discourse.

For the second point, I’m no legal expert, but I really can’t see how, short of a crackdown on media sites with “social posting” options, the real-name system can be effective in the long run if SNS sites are given a pass. If I’m wrong on this, please feel free to let me know what you think…

* With any sites that attract more than 100,000 people per day, visitors who want to leave comments must register using their real names and their national ID numbers.

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