|Concern is growing here over open chat rooms encouraging various criminal acts such as brutal animal abuse and sexual exploitation of minors. Gettyimagesbank|
By Bahk Eun-ji
Concerns are growing over open chat rooms in which users show and encourage various criminal acts such as brutal animal abuse and the sexual exploitation of minors.
Many have called for stricter regulation of such digital spaces and harsher punishments for those who take advantage of their anonymity to encourage and also perpetrate crimes, but some also worry that freedom of expression could be overly suppressed in the process.
According to Seongdong Police Station, Wednesday, an investigation to identify certain chat room participants was recently launched after the Korean Animal Welfare Association filed a complaint with the police.
In an open online chat room named "Gore Professionals" on KakaoTalk, the nation's most popular mobile messenger app, anonymous users reportedly shared pictures and videos that showed stray cats being brutally tortured and killed.
A petition posted on the presidential office's website Jan. 7 calling for serious punishment of the users has garnered more than 230,000 signatures as of Wednesday, surpassing the 200,000 mark which requires Cheong Wa Dae to officially respond to the petition.
|Cho Ju-bin, operator of the "Baksa Room" ― one of the Telegram Nth Room chat rooms in which users shared materials depicting the sexual exploitation of women and girls ― makes a statement in front of Jongno Police Station in central Seoul, in this March 25, 2020 photo. Yonhap|
The animal rights group called for harsh punishments, labelling the case another version of the "Nth Room" case where users shared sexually exploitative and sometimes violent videos of women and young girls in Telegram chat rooms.
Many say that the regulation of open chat rooms is necessary, given that users abuse their anonymity. Such chat rooms can be easily opened by anyone without the need for separate certification procedures, and the number of users is increasing as it allows users to communicate anonymously.
Besides the animal abuse incident, such chat rooms are often used for criminal purposes, such as the sex trafficking of minors.
Last month, the Incheon District Court sentenced a 21-year-old man to two-and-a-half years in prison suspended for three years on charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl with intellectual disabilities after meeting her through an open chat room.
Illegal money transactions are also taking place on open chat rooms. Loan sharks use the apps to contact people in need of money and demand interest rates that exceed legal limits.
While such cases are leading to calls for stronger punishments for people using chat rooms for crimes, there are also concerns over the potential restriction of expression.
In 2019 when the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said it would crack down on illegal video materials in open chat rooms, it faced criticism of "excessive censorship."
At the time, the ministry explained it would crack down only on open chat rooms in which such explicit content was shared, but later abandoned the plan after public criticism intensified.
Kakao, which operates one of the chat room services, said it would manage the controversial chat rooms by monitoring them for specific words such as "sex trafficking," and suspending the users' accounts.
However, as management of groups is often based on user reports, there is a limit to cracking down on them which could take place after an illegal activity has already occurred.
Cho Jin-kyung, an activist leading the group Stand Up Against Sex Trafficking of Minors, said the nation needs to take preemptive action beyond just blocking problematic chat rooms.
"When a crime report comes in and an investigation into the platform begins, the platform has already moved by changing names," she said.