S Korean court rules on internet law

South Korea’s Constitutional Court has ruled that a law that bans the spreading of false information online is unconstitutional, in a move welcomed by free speech advocates in the world’s most wired nation.

The surprise ruling comes as a blow to the conservative government’s attempts to control the web with the catch-all charge of “spreading false information to harm the public interest”, which can carry up to five years in jail and Won50m ($43,500) in fines.

The court said that the definition of "public interest" was vague while the law itself violated freedom of speech. “The concept of public interest is unclear and abstract so the interpretations could vary. It also violates freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution,” the court said.

Liberal civic groups and internet users welcomed the ruling. “The current government has tried to excessively control freedom of speech, using the telecommunications law,” said Ha Seung-woo, president at the Centre for Freedom of Information & Transparent Society. “The ruling highlights the limit to attempts to suppress freedom of expression, which is the basis of democracy.”

The government may still use some other laws such as the National Security Law to punish internet users deemed as spreading “false” information, a court spokesman said. However, it will force prosecutors to drop cases against those charged with violating the telecommunications law, while those who were previously found guilty of violating the law can take their cases to a higher court.

The ruling came after a famous blogger nicknamed “Minerva”, who was indicted for undermining financial markets with his doom-mongering, filed a petition to the Constitutional Court. He was arrested last year after becoming a celebrated online guru by predicting the fall of Lehman Brothers and the crash of the South Korean won. Government officials were so angered by his inaccurate writing that they had ordered financial institutions to stop buying dollars. He was later acquitted.

The South Korean government has stepped up its crackdown on citizens who use the internet and text messaging to attack government policies, sparking criticism from international watchdogs advocating freedom of speech. The government charged 17 South Koreans with violating the telecoms law after they contradicted the government’s account of the Cheonan sinking, claiming that the US – rather than North Korea – sank a South Korean warship in March.

The government also arrested a television producer last year after his programme last year helped inflame massive protests against the import of US beef by suggesting Koreans were genetically more prone to catching mad cow disease.

Earlier this year, controversy over freedom of speech intensified after President Lee Myung-back called for an internal investigation, following allegations that some of his own officials in 2008 conducted an illegal surveillance of a businessman who posted an online video critical of Mr Lee.

But some conservative civic groups on Tuesday expressed worries that the court ruling could increase chaos in cyberspace, by tolerating online invective and hate mail against public figures.

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