Recently, South Korea has been the hotbed for a massive cultural struggle. Rallies were met with counter-protests, arguments were lobbed over streets, and groups swung further and further towards their respective extremes. Feminists and women’s rights activists wanted more freedom and clashed with misogynistic conservatives, who were aghast and indignant at seeing their power erode.
That bitter fight came to the forefront during the Gangnam murder case, where a 34 year-old man stabbed a 21 year-old woman to death in the Gangnam district of Seoul. He didn’t even know her — he killed her simply because of his hatred towards women. Thousands of people mourned and paid tribute to a woman they didn’t even know. They left messages, flowers, and gifts at Gangnam subway station 10 — the site of her death.
Among the most frequent and powerful sentiments that people gave was simply ‘Stop killing women’.
Blood wasn’t just getting spilled on the streets, however. Many fought for their rights through every facet of the culture, especially digital media. Activist groups such as Revenge-Porn Out (RPO) sought out sites where assault and revenge porn thrived, and worked day and night with law enforcement to shut them down. For years, the heaviest fighting happened over the very existence of Soranet. It was the most popular hub for illegal and dangerous assault porn. The fight to take down Soranet was long and brutal, and though they ultimately won, victory was never assured.
What the hell was Soranet?
In its heyday, Soranet was South Korea’s most popular porn website, and it boasted a membership of over a million people — all of them completely anonymous. But it was more than their version of Pornhub — it was also host to a discussion board filled with the worst kinds of revenge porn. The board’s members reveled in a plethora of illegal pornographic activities, such as non-consensual voyeuristic media, gang rape, and child prostitution.
Perhaps worst of all, there were threads where men invited other members to sexually assault women. For example, in November 2015, a member posted a photo of his unconscious girlfriend and it came with a terrible request.
“Whoever posts the best sexual insult against my girlfriend will be invited to participate in a rape session at a motel in Wangsimni.”
Because of the anonymous nature of the discussion board, it was impossible for police to discover who or where the perpetrator actually was. As a result, it was never confirmed if the crime happened at all, much less if anyone was charged and arrested.
The activists who monitored the site discovered that these ‘rape invites’ occurred at an average rate of three per day. Soranet was a breeding ground for assault and revenge porn that was typically reserved for the worst dark-web sites. Its members thrived while its owners grew fat from millions in advertising revenue. No hard numbers were ever made public, but analysts estimated that the site made over 10 billion won (9 million USD) through its lifetime.
Revenge porn and the law
Assault porn, sexploitation, revenge porn, and sextortion have been problematic in and for multiple nations all over the world. A 2016 study by the Data & Society Research Institute revealed that roughly one out of 25 Americans — mostly women — were victims of revenge porn. Another study showed that half of revenge porn victims were so distraught or traumatized that they even contemplated suicide.
Despite the crime’s prevalence, too few countries implemented laws to counteract them, but at least they did something at a national level. In contrast, the United States has lagged in regards to implementing federal laws, so victims were left with barely any means to defend themselves. And despite the fact that 38 States enacted laws to prosecute such criminal acts, there’s little uniformity between them, and the punishments barely carried any weight. The longest jail sentences in America amounted to a maximum of three years at best — a slap on the wrist for perpetrators of revenge porn and sex crimes. Meanwhile, their victims were left violated, broken, and traumatized by their experiences. Their exposure left them unable to function normally, and many even had to change their names in order to escape the humiliation.
The situation in South Korea has been far worse. There, assault porn has been weaponized and used as a means to attack the feminist movement altogether. For example, many women who ended their relationships found themselves threatened with physical assault and blackmailed with revenge porn. In other words, their rights were nonexistent in comparison to male privilege and toxic masculinity.
Though organizations worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement, the lack of legal avenues proved debilitating to the effort of fighting Soranet. South Korean courts were in a back-and-forth struggle in regards to revenge porn, which exacerbated efforts to attain justice by victims. For example, in January 2016, the South Korean supreme court reversed a ruling that previously established the definition of revenge porn. Specifically, they declared that a nude selfie, when distributed non-consensually, was not a criminal act because the offender didn’t take the photograph themselves. As though in response, in late 2017, the Democratic Party of Korea pushed to increase the punishment for those convicted of revenge porn. In essence, they wanted those criminals to serve five-year prison sentences, where previously they were only fined up to 10 million won (roughly $9,000 USD) in lieu of prison.
Interestingly, Soranet was illegal the moment it started in 1999, yet it took close to 17 years before it was actually taken down. South Korean telecommunication laws basically stated that pornographic sites were without a doubt verboten.
In fact, all formats of porn were made illegal, from websites to print media and beyond. The reason given for that censorship was simply that conservative lawmakers in the 80s believed that highly sexualized content led to moral corruption. But the data revealed otherwise, and in fact had the contrary effect: sex crimes rose three-fold over the past twenty years. Certainly much more so on digital porn sites such as Soranet.
Not that the South Korean government didn’t try to tamp it down. In 2004, law enforcement successfully shut down the site and arrested 63 people involved in Soranet’s operations. It was unfortunately a success that they did not get to enjoy for long — its owners very quickly transferred their servers overseas and reopened the site. Its deplorable members celebrated.
That cat-and-mouse battle occurred for years afterwards; as the police worked tirelessly to shut them down, Soranet fled to regions with lax pornography laws that offered better protection for their illicit activities. The fighting became so fierce that at one point Soranet was changing servers and domain names on a daily basis. They then relayed this information over their Twitter account, which allowed their membership and ad revenue to continue growing.
Meanwhile, South Korean authorities were forced to deal with foreign governments in order to catch up to Soranet’s activities. And it was never easy. Soranet’s administrators and members defended their content through the lens of free speech. This made for murky legal waters, and caused lawmakers from different countries to debate furiously over their own definition of free speech and free expression. As those governments fought over interpretations of their laws, Soranet steadily gained more members, notoriety, and revenue.
They also refined their business practices, which made their dealings more obfuscated and harder to track. Investors became forgetful on details, money was placed into offshore accounts, corporate addresses were nonexistent, and the owners kept to the shadows.
In April 2016, authorities had a big breakthrough. 62 of the site’s operators were arrested, servers in the Netherlands were shut down, and Soranet was crippled overnight. Without the ability to host any data, its membership crumbled, and so did its massive ad revenues.
Finally, Soranet was no more.
Authorities found that copycat sites had popped up on foreign servers since Soranet’s shutdown. Two of its owners, their identities exposed, tried to keep their illicit activities going. They opened an entirely new site using servers in Japan and attempted to recreate their profits with Soranet. It hosted some degree of pornographic content, but its main draw was the illegal brokerage of prostitution. The site housed thousands of prostitute profiles which allowed clients to pick and choose their preference. The owners charged hundreds of thousands of won per ‘transaction’ and made millions just from the few months it was up and running.
They were ultimately caught, their brokerage website shut down, and their activities were halted. However, they had made it clear that there was no stopping what Soranet had started. Die-hard members expressed that it was simply a matter of time until the site was back in place and they could partake in its depravities again.
“…there will come a second and then a third Soranet because there will always be demand for such content.”
Authorities always feared that Soranet was going to return, but they were also adamant in their ability to stop it, in whatever form it returned in.