Sora.net: When Online Conspiracies Become a Reality

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South Korea has recently become embroiled in a controversy. This controversy involves a website that has become a poster child for freedom of expression. Sora.net is an adult website that allows users to access pornography, post materials on their own, carry out discussions on topics that range from current events to pop culture, and arrange meet-ups. From the American perspective, Sora.net might not seem out of the ordinary. However, in Korea, pornographic websites are prohibited pursuant to the country’s telecommunications law.[1] However, not only is the very existence of the website illegal, but the website has become a forum for encouraging criminal activities of sexual nature, posing a serious challenge to law enforcement and public safety in general.

Attempts at blocking access to the website have been futile. This is not the first time that the Korean government has waged war against Sora.net. The police conducted a crackdown in 2004, in which they arrested sixty-three affiliates of the website. However, ten years later, Sora.net is back with a vengeance – the site now boasts more than one million registered users.

This comment examines the status of censorship in South Korea in relation to the Internet use of its citizens. It observes some of the obstacles that the government faces in its efforts to shut down Sora.net. It also discusses other issues regarding privacy and sexual harassment that complicate the debate over freedom of expression when it comes to adult websites.

Internet Censorship in Korea

Many are surprised to discover the extent to which the South Korean government regulates internet use. Korea boasts the fastest Internet speeds in the world, clocking in at about 22 Mbps. (Internet speeds in the U.S. are less than 10 Mbps.) On the other hand, Freedom House, a watchdog based in Washington, has placed South Korea’s Internet freedom at 34 out of 100, categorizing Korea as “partly free.” This puts Korea closer to Colombia (32), Ukraine (37), and Nigeria (33) in terms of the degree of freedom allowed online. On the scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being the most free, most developed nations score below 30. Why is there such a dichotomy?

Heavy censorship can be partially explained by the fact that South Korea is still technically “at war” with its Northern neighbor. For example, South Korea does not allow exportation of its geographic data outside of its territory for national security reasons. This has posed quite a significant obstacle to companies that provide Web Map Services (WMS) such as Google Maps because Google’s server is located in the US.

As of now, Google Maps can only provide directions via public transportation since it is considered a matter of public record, but cannot provide directions for walking or driving, which are common features offered to the rest of the world. In more serious instances, the government was criticized for regulating political dissidents voicing their opposition to the president or supporting the North on social networking sites.

As for blocking adult content, the explanation is linked to Korean government’s efforts at protecting the youth from being exposed to “harmful” materials online. “Harmful material” is defined as whatever the Youth Protection Committee has designated as harmful to the proper development of youth according to Youth Protection Law § 1(2) clause 3.

The warning page that users are redirected to when their IP address is blocked.

The warning page that users are redirected to when their IP address is blocked.

In the early 2000s when Internet addiction among the youth became an increasing concern, the Korean government started taking more initiatives to restrict their access. In 2011, the legislature passed the “Shutdown Law,” also popularly known as the “Cinderella Law,” which blocked access of adolescent gamers from midnight to 6 a.m. Adult users had to verify their age by submitting their national registration number if they wished to continue playing overnight.

In countries like the U.S where the First Amendment is almost sanctified, government censorship of this kind may incite public uproar. However, Koreans are more accustomed to the central government regulating the more private aspects of their lives. For example, the South Korean government in the 70s used to regulate skirt lengths, forbid premarital sex if it was based on false promise of marriage, and prohibited much of skin exposure on TV. Because the citizens expect the government to institute protective measures for public morality to a certain extent, it is more likely that government censorship over Sora.net is not only tolerated but also requested.

Criminal Issues Concerning Sora.net

Aside from the content of the website, there are other reasons why Sora.net raises alarms for many people. The website features a discussion board, which allows registered users to post original content. One of the boards is exclusively geared towards amateur voyeuristic pornography. Users share anything from up-skirt images to images captured by hidden cameras installed in public restrooms and homes.

South Korea has a criminal statute that expressly forbids the use of cameras or other recording devices for voyeuristic purposes. Pursuant to the Punishment of Sexual Crime Act, one is forbidden from using cameras or similar recording devices to capture without consent another person’s body part that could create embarrassment or shame of a sexual nature (Art. 14(1)). It is also illegal to sell, distribute, lend, or display in public those images without consent. Violators are subjected to punishment of less than five years in prison, or less than 10,000,000 Won in fines (approximately $10,000 USD). Even if the victim consented to having those pictures or videos taken at the time, one still violates the law if one sells, distributes, lends, supplies, or publishes those recordings without consent at a later date (Art. 14(2)). Therefore, most of the voyeuristic materials posted on the discussion board likely violate the statute. However, due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, and the sheer number of postings each day, enforcement of the statute is virtually impossible.

More alarming still is the fact that some users use the message board to solicit co-conspirators for rape, along with other heinous crimes. In one example, a person posted that his girlfriend had passed out from being too intoxicated, and asked for people to message him privately for his location so that they could “have a go for an hour or two.” The authors of these posts sometimes make women unconscious on purpose by administering a mix of alcohol and date rape drugs. The discussion boards also serve as a market place for the drugs that would make women unconscious, and the ease with which one could gain access to such substances is alarming. These acts can sometimes amount to prostitution, which is also illegal in Korea, because perpetrators often solicit payment for providing such opportunities. Many perpetrators film the process, and may use the recordings in the future to blackmail the victims into silence.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the website is fraught with sexual crimes against women, there has not been a reported case of prosecution tied to the website. As mentioned earlier, the anonymity and lack of cooperation from the website would make it very difficult for law enforcement to track down these authors and verify the truth of their postings by gathering evidence. Because individual prosecution is almost impossible, the only recourse may be shutting down the website altogether.

Legal Challenges to Shutting Down Sora.net

Typically, governments block user access based on IP-addresses. The user is re-directed to a warning page informing him or her that access to content has been blocked pursuant to government regulation. The Korean government employs the same tactic with Sora.net. However, Sora.net has been able to circumvent such measures by switching its domain name every week. Sora.net utilizes Twitter to announce its new web address every week.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Sora.net is hosted overseas, and that uncertainties exist as to where the server is actually located. There had been some conflicting news accounts pointing to Australia, Canada, and the US as possible sites. Once the Korean government locates the server, it would need to seek the foreign government’s cooperation and jump through jurisdictional hoops if it were to eradicate the website permanently. Typically, Internet service providers (ISP) are subject to jurisdiction of the country in which they are physically located pursuant to property law. Even so, countries may be reluctant to hold ISPs liable for content that they host because ISPs cannot monitor everything that is published online through their servers.[2] Moreover, unless Sora.net is violating the domestic law of the host country, it is difficult to take down the website because of freedom of speech considerations.

Crime or Freedom of Expression?

Due to the recent outcry of the general public, Sora.net has declared that it plans to close most of its popular features such as the discussion boards and amateur content as of December 1, 2015. Some people have heralded the change as a step in the right direction, while others expressed outrage for giving into unfair pressure from the government. The administrators of the website declared that the people had the right to know and enjoy adult content. In response, Congresswoman Sun-Mi Jin retorted that they have no right to watch real rape happen, as opposed to porn films that depict rape but are not actually rape. She reasoned that Sora.net is too interconnected with sexual crime to be considered a simple pornographic website. Others have pointed out that shutting down Sora.net would only invite similar websites to crop up, leaving the fundamental problem of regulating the Net unresolved.

Even if the adults in Korea should have the right to enjoy adult entertainment online, Sora.net is not just a simple adult website. There is a fine line between allowing free speech and tolerating an open forum for criminal conspiracies. This is an important line for the Korean government to draw in order to protect its citizens. The takedown of the Silk Road has shown the world that international cooperation to regulate the criminal activities over the Internet is possible. Perhaps similar measures should be taken against Sora.net if criminal activities against women persist. The conversation has finally begun, and some are calling for stricter regulation, but changes may not be possible until proponents of the website realize that “freedom of expression” cannot be used as a catch-all for tolerating flagrant crimes.

[1] Information and Communications Network Act Article 44(7)(3).

[2] For example, the US courts do not usually hold ISPs accountable unless some active presence is proven because ISPs are considered to be “passive.”  ALS Scan, Inc. v. Digital Service Consultants, Inc. 193 F.3d 707 (2002); International Shoe Co. v. State of Washington, Office of Unemployment Compensation and Placement, 326 U.S 310 (1945).

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