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Many Loopholes in Policing Illegal Online Campaigning

Posted December. 01, 2002 22:56,   


With the presidential race getting closer to the election day, illegal cyber-campaigning is running wild over the Internet. Nonetheless, due to the inefficiency of the policy responses, no substantial policing is being conducted, say some experts.

The police have operated special task forces around the nation to rein in the rampaging illegal online campaigning. Nonetheless, the jurisdictions of various law enforcement agencies are not clearly delineated, and, therefore, an agency can technically monitor all sites on the Internet. In the process, only major sites are scrutinized by many agencies at the same time.

On top of that, no guidelines have been provided for surveillance and patrolling purposes. Especially, policing illegally uploaded messages depends only on the hunch of the officer in charge. Or, the officer has to sometimes follow the National Election Commission, or, other times, follow the directions of the prosecution. As a result, a swift response is practically impossible.

▽ Status of law enforcing = Yesterday, one police station in Seoul confirmed that it has assigned, like other stations nationwide, 4-5 police officers to a task force named Cyber Division. Each of those officers has added 30-50 sites to "Favorite" folder in his/her computer.

Monitoring is being made mainly over the sites of political parties, such as Grand National Party and New Millennium Party, and the media stations or newspapers. An "unknown" site is not searched unless the police are not tipped off.

Under these circumstances, most of the reports submitted to the Police Department overlap with each other. One division chief confirmed, "I have received about 10 cases of overlapping. In conducting the surveillance, our officers give priority to major search engines like Yahoo! and Neighbor. Even when an illegal online campaigning is detected, officers do not know which station should and will conduct the investigation. Therefore, they have to contact Police Department in most cases. Unless it is a `major site,` it is likely to be overlooked, allowing illegal campaigning thereon."

▽ Vague standards = So many "agencies," so many "standards." An examination confirmed the phrase. The cutoff line for starting an investigation varies from one police station to another. Some stations embark on an investigation when an individual posts 20-50 messages, while others, in extreme cases, prosecute a person only when the person posts 150-500 messages.

Park Joo-jin, a senior member of the Seoul Police Department, said, "Not the quantity, but the `quality` of a message calls the shots regarding messages falsely criticizing presidential candidates."

In practice, however, that standard does not give much help to officers. For example, Section 82(3) of the Election Act, which defines allowable criticism, just provides a board concept. It provides, in relevant part, "It is prohibited to post any messages that are intended to circulate false facts or to circulate any information infringing on the privacy of a presidential candidate." Consequently, an investigation or prosecution depends on the hunch of an officer conducting the surveillance.

One officer of a Cyber Division in Seoul said, “The common sense is the standard. Even when we refer to the National Election Commission, it gives back different standards for different cases. Some guys use very cunning methods. They start their messages like `Dear Mr. Candidate:,` or allege that the messages they post are copies of messages found somewhere on the Internet. In those cases, it is confusing whether to start an official probe into it or not."

▽ Complex chain of command = Another problem is posed by the complex chain of command for conducting a police investigation. The National Election Commission has the authority to erase an "illegal critique" right upon finding it posted on the Internet. But it is not the case with the police. Moreover, under the current laws, the police have to obtain prior directions from the prosecution in order even to start a probe into a suspected violation. For example, just to get the permission from the prosecution for tracking IPs, it takes about 2-3 days. Therefore, if an individual posts a message and erases it shortly thereafter, using the Internet cafés, it is very difficult to apprehend and prosecute the culprit."

In the meanwhile, the police have detected 400 people posted "illegal online critiques," and arrested 9 of them and charged 57.

In-Jik Cho cij1999@donga.com