Digital Prison: Is Korea Ready for Vigilante Justice?

数码监狱:韩国准备好接受 “私法制裁者” 正义了吗? 심민정, 김건희, 류시은l승인2020.10.05l수정2020.10.05 20:14l381호 1면

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   Have you heard of "Digital Prison"? It is an Internet site that reveals the identities of suspects of violent crimes such as murder, child abuse and sex offences. The site, which emerged in July 2020 after the public shared its outrage about the lenient attitude of Korean courts towards people charged with these violent crimes, garnered a growth in support after the N bank scandal was made public and the courts failed to repatriate ring leader Son Jung-woo from the US. The site disclosed the identities of the suspects involved in the scandal on Instagram along with their personal information and the crimes they were suspected of committing. The name and shame site was widely supported by netizens angered by the fact that most of the suspects in the scandal were not being legally disclosed at the time.  The site went further disclosing the identities of all sex offenders, violent criminals, and even judges who made rulings related to these cases. Since it is strictly illegal to publicly disclose the personal information of others, the Korean police launched a campaign to track down and arrest the website operator. However, the identity of the site operator remains unknown and its server is based in Russia. According to the site operator, there are site co-authors based in Daegu and Busan, but local police are unable to arrest them as the server hosting the page is located abroad. However legal experts disagree. Under Korean law, what the site operators do is illegal and that is why they are being chased by the police.

▲ Digital Prison website. (Photo from Digital Prison website)

   Digital Prison was created out of a backlash against Korea’s history of lenient laws against violent criminals and sex offenders. "We feel limited in the lenient punishment of malicious criminals in Korea, and we want to make their personal information public so they can face a court of public opinion," the site's founder said. In an e-mail interview with MBC, he argued that criminals are often released even before the victim has had a chance to heal, so he launched Digital Prison to make sure that those responsible for the crimes face a social judgment. The anonymous vigilante decided to launch the site after learning that his cousin was a victim of online sexual exploitation.

   Many Koreans agree that the level of punishment for sex offenders is low. Cho Doo-soon kidnapped a 9-year-old girl and violently raped her causing her to lose 80 percent of her genitals and anus. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, because he was drunk at the time. In comparison, under US law, a same offender would have faced a punishment of up to 1,000 years in prison. This leniency provoked huge public indignation and raised the opinion that the Korean judicial community has neglected getting tough on sex offenders. Many citizens agree with the disclosure of personal information, saying it is the most efficient way to educate people about the problem.

   Another reason for its popularity is its ease of accessibility. Currently, the domestic sex offender notification service can only be accessed after completing a relatively complicated process, and it is difficult to confirm the information as reliable because there are many sex offenders that are not registered in the service. However, information can be easily found on Digital Prison using their search function. The site lists the identities of criminals and suspected criminals and lists the crimes they committed.

   There are positive and negative opinions about Digital Prison. The site discloses the details of the crime and the offender’s personal information to the entire nation, despite the risk of legal backlash. Although they are clearly in contravention of the nation’s defamation laws, some citizens support the site. It’s convenient to use and enables public access to a suspect's personal information which some argue is making crime prevention more effective than ever before. In addition, with the Korean judiciary making judgments in sex offender cases that do not reflect the will of the people, Digital Prison can provide a form of vigilante justice. Sex Offenders are called out and executed publicly on the internet. The local operators of Digital Prison said, "There is a lot of criticism regarding the controversy over private sanctions and there are many opinions calling for the site to be shut down, but it is too good a website to disappear as it is."

   The Dankook Herald interviewed professor Kim Rae-young in Dept. of Law to learn more about the legal ramifications of Digital Prison. Professor Kim said, "There is some factual information on the site, but overall it is unreliable because they do not provide any vetted evidence of guilt." This point was highlighted to the public after a Korea University student that was falsely identified on the site, died due to the stress he endured when his information was made public.

   Professor Kim said, "The site is guilty of defamation of character under the ‘Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Networks Utilization and Information Protection. In addition, depending on how people analyze the legal status of the site’s manager, the page can also be in violation of the Personal Information Protection Act. What’s more, one news article suggested the site operator was collecting donations. If this is the case, it is a violation of the ‘Act on Collection and Use of Donations’ and those who sponsor the site with money or bitcoin donations can be considered complicit, and may also be guilty of forming a criminal group. Finally, releasing the identities of offenders with information collected by hacking into state institution servers without any discussion with a court or law or enforcement authorities may be considered obstruction of justice and the site operators may be forced to compensate victims for any damages.”

   However not all of these laws will be easy to prove. For instance, in the case of the Korea University student, Professor Kim said, “The family of the deceased can sue for defamation, but because he died of cardiac arrest, the causality between Digital Prison and his death might be hard to establish.”  However, when it comes to the idea that the operators are free from punishment because their server is based overseas, Professor Kim disagrees. “I think it would be hard to execute a search and seizure of the server, due to the fact that the operators are cyber refugees. However, since we have a precedence for cooperation with foreign countries in criminal investigations, there should be no major difficulties in this case. Also, Korean criminal law punishes Korean for crimes committed abroad, so there is no reason to think they would escape punishment," he said. In the end, the law professor was skeptical about the sites influence on crime.  He said, "There is no objective data to prove that the site is a deterrent for sex crimes." However, he pointed out, the “easygoing attitude of the judiciary and deep-rooted male chauvinism in Korea are the real problems we face, and we need to respond by increasing penalties for sex offenders."

   Vigilantism is prohibited by law because it is incompatible with a state sponsored rule of law, where criminals are punished appropriately for crimes committed under a set law. In this regard, Digital Prison can be seen as a new frontier, as it has no objective standards. It is not even an institution with verification capabilities. There is no system of check and balances and it relies solely on the personal judgment of the site operator. Under these circumstances there is a risk of exposing the personal information of innocent people. With the accuracy of the disclosure being so problematic, the police are investigating the site and seeking out the whereabouts of the operator. A cyber investigation team at the Daegu Metropolitan Police Agency is currently conducting a site tracking operation with the cooperation of international governments.

   Digital Prison is a new frontier of justice. The excavation of the existing frontier was necessary, but is this really the best way to go about it?  A lack of a valid system of proof leaves too much room for mistakes.  The death of the Korean University student who was outed on the page has led to a call for punitive measures against site operators. Instead of taking these risks, perhaps it is time for the Korean judiciary to correct their ineffective lenient punitive measures against violent criminals and sex offenders, so that they better reflect the needs of this democracy.


심민정, 김건희, 류시은  dankookherald@gmail.com
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