South Koreans should not have to identify themselves before posting to online message boards and using other websites, a constitutional court ruled Thursday, dealing a blow to a law curbing Internet anonymity.
The South Korean law required Internet users to submit their real names and government identification numbers before chattering on Web portals, a rule that was expanded five years ago to cover all websites with more than 100,000 daily visitors.
Outing Internet users was meant to stop malicious attacks by nameless netizens, which had been blamed for several suicides, including that of one of the country's most beloved actresses.
The South Korean system was the most sweeping effort to register and identify Internet users in the world, rivaled only by restrictions in China, said Sarah Cook, a Freedom House senior research analyst focusing on Internet freedom. But as other countries become increasingly wired, the same debates are likely to pop up elsewhere.
"South Korea is a few steps ahead, not just in technology, but in the debates we’re seeing as more and more people get online," Cook said. Because it is an Internet pioneer, "these decisions have an impact far beyond its borders as the Internet becomes a part of everyday life."
Profanity and "slanderous and abusive words" against the government and individuals fell after the registration law went into effect, one recent Carnegie Mellon University study found. Free speech groups complained that the rules inhibited South Koreans from speaking openly online.
Outrage over the rules spread last year after hackers victimized tens of millions of people, spurring the government to alter the system so that sensitive data would not be at risk, turning to cellphone numbers and other identifiers to verify names.
The Thursday ruling piled on another problem: The Internet registration law is unconstitutional, the court found, concluding it violated freedom of speech. It also had a nasty side effect for South Korean companies, as many South Koreans turned to foreign sites such as Twitter to avoid having to be identified.
South Korea, one of the most wired countries, has increasingly come under fire for clamping down on Internet users. Internet postings critical of businesses or the government have been blocked, leading Freedom House to downgrade South Korea from "free" to "partly free" in its media freedom ratings last year.
Free speech has also been a battle offline: The conservative government of Lee Myung-bak has faced lengthy strikes from news channels and agencies over complaints of media controls.
The South Korean courts, however, have countered some infringements on speech, Cook said. In one of the most well-known cases, the courts acquitted a financial blogger nicknamed Minerva who was accused of spreading malicious rumors about the South Korean economy.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: An employee polishes a tablet computer at the Samsung flagship store in Seoul in July. Credit: Seong Joon Cho / Bloomberg