’Trial by Internet’ Casts Spotlight on Korean Cyber Mobs

      July 08, 2005 17:59

      The case of a woman who was thrown to a Korean cyber lynch mob for failing to clean up the mess her dog had left behind has put the international spotlight on the country’s sometimes vicious online community.

      "Subway Fracas Escalates into Test of the Internet's Power to Shame,” the Washington Post headlined a story on the "Dog Poop Girl" on Thursday. The paper said the incident revealed the power of the Internet and provided "a peek into an unsettling corner of the future" of the cyberworld, in turn sparking debate among experts and bloggers in the U.S.

      The young woman attracted mercilessly abusive comments from Internet users in June when photos posted online showed her getting off the subway without cleaning up the mess her dog made. Users publicized the woman’s personal information, one posting her picture on an online auction site with a caption that read, "I'm selling dog poop." Ultimately, in the court of cyber-opinion, she received a virtual death sentence.

      Legal expert Daniel Solove of George Washington University wrote the incident "involves a norm that most people would seemingly agree to -- clean up after your dog. But having a permanent record of one's norm violations is upping the sanction to a whole new level... allowing bloggers to act as a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters."

      Howard Rheingold, an expert in group behavior, said the debate should begin with an understanding that the rules of privacy have changed. "The shadow side of the empowerment that comes with a billion and a half people being online is the surveillance aspect,” he said. “We used to worry about big brother -- the state -- but now of course it's our neighbors, or people on the subway."

      Former journalist Dan Gillmor said, "Where the line is between doing what the media or the legal system won't do is a pretty interesting question, and I don't have the answer... People have to think about consequences."

      The author of the Washington Post piece, Jonathan Krim, said conversation about the incident and comments on blogs revealed a common thread. "The instinct of most was to accept using the Internet as a new social-enforcement tool, but to search for that point on the continuum where enough was too much."

      Some said circulating pictures of the Dog Poop Girl was fine but calls for her personal information to be revealed were not. Others said the woman's face and other distinguishing features should have been obscured, while still others said she had no right to privacy at all.

      Within Korea, views about the "Dog Poop Girl" incident are complex. Public opinion, at first unanimously critical of the young woman, took a step back when indiscriminate attacks from Netizens developed into a witch-hunt. In a recent program, EBS analyzed human rights abuses that occurred as a result of malicious online comments like those that characterized the "Dog Poop Girl" incident.

      Hang Gyeong-shik, a professor of philosophy at Seoul National University, warned the “faceless” character of the Internet could encourage a space devoid of norms or ethics. Lawyer Chang Ji-won of the Group to Cultivate a Mature Society said, "We need more accurate analysis of the multitude of crimes that happen on the Internet and urgently study ways of dealing with such incidents to protect and compensate victims."

      (englishnews@chosun.com )
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