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[Editorial] Dispute over ‘Nth room’ law

Steps needed to tighten loopholes of the revised law and clear digital censorship concerns

The “Nth room prevention law,” enacted hurriedly last year to prevent digital sex crimes, is sparking a wave of disputes over state censorship amid concerns over the law’s fundamental flaws and loopholes.

At issue is the revision to the Telecommunications Business Act and a related law that went into effect Friday after a one-year grace period. The revision was made last year after the digital sex trafficking of women and underage girls was committed via secret Telegram chatrooms in what has been called the “Nth room” incident.

Under the law, social media, online community operators and big portals -- those which generate 1 billion won ($850,000) in annual revenue or attract more than 100,000 visitors per day -- must check for and filter out illegal videos and photos in their public and group chat rooms.

There is no question about the need for measures to prevent digital sexual trafficking, but the problem-laden law in question is generating heated controversy over digital censorship among online users and politicians.

The main reason for the dispute is the way filtering technology developed by the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute is applied. When a user tries to upload a video to a public chat room in an internet community, it is automatically compared with videos stored in the ETRI’s illegal content database. If the video in question matches a file in the database, the upload process is halted and a warning message pops up.

What worries the critics the most is that the filtering process takes place before the upload of a file is complete. Even if a user wants to share a benign video file, the artificial intelligence-based technology could fail to work properly, as with other artificial intelligence solutions that sometimes commit errors.

Chat room users have already tested several videos to check out the accuracy of the filtering solution, and alleged errors involving a cat, games and animation footage triggered the warning. Some online community users have complained that such pre-upload filtering is “censorship.”

Although authorities argue the filtering only targets public chat rooms, not private KakaoTalk messages or email exchanges, the technology indeed has some issues. This is inevitable given it has been just four months since the solution was developed.

But if more users go through delays and face warning signs due to technical glitches, they would rightly conclude that the filtering system itself is unreliable, while causing false alarm and blocking users from sharing legitimate content, aside from the dispute over whether such technology can be deemed censorship that undermines the freedom of expression.

Another crucial issue is that the revised law does not have any impact on Telegram, Discord or other messaging apps whose servers are run from outside of Korea. This is ironic in that the law, dubbed the “Nth room” law, cannot regulate Telegram, the very app where the notorious cybercrime took place.

It is the police who will crack down on digital sex crimes on Telegram and other apps by deploying special investigative teams, which means filtering in public chat rooms is largely intended to block the subsequent spread of illegal sexual content from the initial sources.

But internet company officials claim it is extremely rare for such illegal digital sex content to circulate on open online communities, blogs or public chat rooms, raising questions about whether massive filtering for such digital platforms is needed in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, politicians are attempting to jump into the Nth room law dispute. Yoon Seok-yeol, the presidential nominee of the main opposition People Power Party, said he would seek to revise the related law, citing the “fear of censorship” among the public. Yoon’s rival, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, defended the law, arguing, “All freedom and rights have essential and legal limits,” including the freedom of expression.

Tight and systematic crackdowns on digital sex crimes should be implemented, but the government and lawmakers need to take steps to dispel worries about digital censorship.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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