Online Consequences of being Offline: A Gendered Tale from South Korea

Dr. Yenn Lee

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, cyberspace was popularly perceived as separate from the ‘real’ world. It was a new and promising space, free from the constraints of the ‘meatspace’, yet one could also retreat back from virtual to actual life anytime, according to that perception. This demarcation between the online and offline realms is no longer relevant. With ubiquitous connections through WiFi, smartphones, and other digital devices nowadays in many parts of the world, you are likely to be constantly online, whether you are in your living room watching TV, on a commuter train, or at a party, and you may even post on social media a running commentary of experiences you are having offline. Moreover, even if you vow to stay completely disconnected, you cannot stop your family, friends, or random passers-by from posting something online that implicates you [1].

In this inseparably blended environment, we hear numerous anecdotes of people facing the offline consequences of their online activity. Some have lost jobs [2], have been disciplined in school [3], or have wound up in court [4] for what they have posted online. However, in comparison, there has been scarce discussion of the reverse scenario, in which going about one’s day-to-day life offline leads to violations of one’s online self. This essay, taken from the author’s multi-year digital ethnography, is precisely concerned with that scenario.

Little known outside Korea is that between May and December 2018 there were six mass demonstrations in central Seoul, with tens of thousands of women present each time, against an epidemic crime locally dubbed molka. An acronym literally meaning ‘hidden camera’, molka refers to the phenomenon of women being filmed unknowingly in the least expected of situations — including inside cubicles in public toilets, in motel rooms, in hospitals, on streets, or even at their own homes — and their footages being circulated and consumed as entertainment and pornography in various male-dominated online spaces — also known as the ‘manosphere’ [5]. This is distinct from ‘revenge porn’ or cyber-stalking where a perpetrator targets a known or pre-determined individual with the intention of controlling that person. The subjects of molka are victimised for merely existing offline and are unaware that their privacy and dignity have been violated until someone recognises them in such footages and lets them know.

The exploitation of non-consensual photos and videos of women has a long history and is not an issue exclusive to Korea. The anonymous message board AnonIB, for example, was notorious for facilitating the global distribution of revenge porn and hacked intimate images of women, including Hollywood celebrities, for years until the Dutch police seized its servers in April 2018 [6]. In England, public pressure is piling on the government to criminalise the act of taking sexually intrusive pictures and videos of women in public without their permission — commonly dubbed ‘upskirting’, ‘downblousing’, or ‘creepshots’ [7].

My life is not your porn”

Nevertheless, South Korea’s molka phenomenon makes an unparalleled case study at least on three accounts: normalisation, trivialisation, and cartelisation. First, what stands out about it most immediately is how prevailing and normalised such transgressions are. To illustrate the extent, below is a screenshot, captured by the author on 20th April 2016, of a Google search of the word ‘street’ in Korean (Image 1) as opposed to the same search in English (Image 2). In both cases, the browser’s cache, cookies, and history were cleared before the searches, and the result images were not rearranged in any way.

Image 1: Top Google Image search results of ‘street’ in the Korean language
Image 2: Top Google Image search results of ‘street’ in English

In Korea, a privacy risk brought by the spread of digital cameras was acknowledged early on, to the point that all mobile phones sold in the country make a loud shutter noise by unchangeable default when taking photos to prevent unnoticed photography. This non-legally binding industry standard was introduced in 2004. Japan seems to be the only other country in the world that adopted the same approach, dating further back to around 2000. However, this solution soon became meaningless, as there are now apps that override the mandatory shutter sound. Moreover, ‘spycam’ equipment (i.e., cameras so small as to be hidden in any everyday objects) is sold openly on online marketplaces for a price as small as about 30 dollars [8].

News coverage for English-speaking readers has so far focused on the fact that molka imagery has been shared or even commercially traded as a genre of pornography, speculating if there may be a correlation between the rise of molka crimes and the Korean government’s strict censorship of any content deemed as ‘obscene’ including pornographic material. However, the issue is much more complex than that. In the ‘manosphere’ it is easy to find users who readily state that they enjoy watching molka footages and that they prefer them over studio-produced foreign pornography even when they have access to the latter because the former feel more ‘authentic’ and entertaining. In such statements there is no regard for victims. In fact, the extreme objectification of women in this context goes so far that when a molka victim ends up committing suicide because of the consequences of the crime inflicted, her video is repackaged as her ‘posthumous piece’ and gains extra attention [9].

Boys will be boys”

Having said that, it is not only the rampant extent of this digital violence that has drawn crowds of women onto the streets. The second distinct aspect of the molka phenomenon is how lightly the issue has been taken by law enforcement agencies until recently. In fact, the direct trigger for the first mass demonstration on 19th May 2018 was an incident a fortnight before where a 25-year-old female model, Ahn, was arrested for secretly taking a photo of a male colleague posing nude in a life-drawing class at a university in Seoul and posting that photo on Womad, a radical feminist group website, allegedly in retaliation for a dispute she had with him during a break earlier in the day. Since the incident escalated unprecedentedly quickly, taking no more than ten days from the day of the said photo being posted online to the day of the highly publicised arrest, many Korean women cried institutional sexism. Protesters at the May rally pointed out that most reports of molka crimes committed by men had been dismissed and victims belittled by police. Many offered their own lived experiences as evidence.

The rallies continued, with an accumulated number of 360,000 participants under the now iconic slogan “My Life Is Not Your Porn”, on 9th June, 7th July, 4th August, 6th October, and 22nd December 2018, with the last one in December seeing some 110,000 participants, according to the organisers [10], despite the near-zero degree Celsius temperature. It was reportedly the biggest women’s rally in South Korean history.

Faced with the mounting pressure, the government promised intervention. Minister of the Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum declared ‘zero tolerance’ on molka crimes at an extraordinary press conference on 15th June (right after the second mass demonstration), jointly with the Ministries of Gender Equality and Family, Education, and Justice as well as the National Police Agency. President Moon Jae-in echoed the same stance at a cabinet briefing on 3rd July [11], although he denied that there had been gender bias in law enforcement responses to such crimes previously. Besides various public service campaigns launched subsequently, an amendment was also made to the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes, prescribing harsher penalties for molka and applying the same measure to the original offenders and those distributing reproduced copies (effective from 18th December 2018).

While all these sound like positive developments, Ahn was sentenced to ten months in prison on 13th August, and the ruling was upheld in an appellate court on 20th December. A number of women have protested this ruling at the offline rallies and also through social media hashtags and bulk text messages to politicians. They have contrasted Ahn’s case with those committed by men that have come before and after hers, arguing that those male perpetrators, including national team swimmers, doctors, schoolteachers, church pastors, civil servants, and even a court judge, had been let off with a gentle slap on the wrist [12]. Pointing to this discrepancy, the protesters have maintained that the government is, despite its recent interventionist moves, indifferent to the fears that women face in their day-to-day life.

This remarkable level of distrust and anger expressed by South Korean women towards their government’s willingness or ability to address the issue can be illustratively explained by the tweet cited below (Image 3). In this tweet, AFP’s Seoul correspondent Hawon Jung shares one of the anti-molka campaign posters made by police, which sums up how the authorities trivialise the widespread crimes causing so much fear and anxiety among women into “funny laughable pranks committed by pink-cheeked man-boys”.

Image 3: Tweet by Hawon Jung (URL: https://twitter.com/allyjung/status/1027470678553849856)

The tip of the iceberg

It is of note that in the course of the series of demonstrations, the government was at first mainly criticised for its lack of action, but by the time of the sixth demonstration, it was called, across placards and tweets, the ultimate ‘pimp’ in the molka industry. To outside observers, this may seem like a stretch, but this shift was fuelled by several investigative journalism pieces that came out in the second half of 2018 [13], exposing secret business connections between various digital service companies that monetise women’s victimhood. It has been alleged that the government has been complacent in the formation of such connections, which has given rise to the ‘pimp’ slogan.

According to media reports, the following is how the molka ecosystem operates. First, molka footages are shared predominantly through online storage services (which are referred to in Korean as ‘webhard’ services). Perpetrators generate molka files using equipment that they can purchase with a few clicks online, and upload those files onto webhard folders with a public sharing option on, allowing anyone to search and download the files for around 10 cents apiece.

As per the country’s Telecommunications Business Act, webhard service providers are required to have a technical measure in place to filter out such illegal content. However, what has been revealed is that they have instead been encouraging the so-called ‘heavy uploaders’ by rewarding their loyalty to the services with further financial incentives. Moreover, many webhard service providers have outsourced the filtering task to content filtering specialists to demonstrate legal compliance, but it turns out that those webhard companies and the filtering companies they have used are effectively owned by the same people. The former or current CEOs of some of these companies even hold positions in government or public organisations that promote digital advancement [14].

With nowhere else to turn to, many desperate victims have hired private services, locally dubbed ‘digital undertakers’, to have their unconsented videos removed from the face of the internet [15]. Considering how easily digital content can be reproduced and circulated, it is practically impossible to conclude that the content in question is completely removed. Molka victims are therefore personally burdened with a recurring fee of several thousand dollars with no obvious end. In this context, perhaps the most disturbing revelation is that some digital undertakers are also found to have secret business deals with webhard companies and content filtering companies. That such a ‘cartel’ exists to monetarily exploit women’s privacy is the third unique characteristic of the molka phenomenon.

Privacy as a gendered privilege in a digitally mediated society

The present essay briefly recounts the ways and extent to which women’s mundane, private life is being criminally violated and commercially consumed in South Korea in recent years. This sombre tale from one of the world’s most connected countries may sound like an extreme case of the erosion of privacy protections in the digital age [16]. However, its relevance transcends geographical and cultural boundaries, highlighting three crucial points for policymakers and privacy advocates in Korea as well as around the world.

First of all, the case concretely demonstrates how our physical and digital existences are now inseparably intertwined. The molka phenomenon itself has developed while shifting between offline and online realms. Women are victimised digitally for merely having a bodily existence offline. They do not even know that their online selves have been violated until someone recognises them in molka footages and decides to let them know, which causes greater fear and anxiety to victims and potential victims. In response, a cumulative total of 360,000 frustrated and infuriated women staged six protest rallies in central Seoul between May and December 2018, urging justice and full accountability for such crimes. However, ironically, many of those women gathered offline to condemn molka ended up being subjected to further unconsented photography. Some male passers-by took and posted such photos online to identify individual protesters and directed misogynist comments at them. As a result, the organisers of the anti-molka rallies explicitly limited access to protest sites to (biological) women only — a decision that divided opinion and was criticised by LGBT supporters — and most participants had their faces covered with scarves and masks at the events.

This leads to the second point. In this increasingly hybrid environment, privacy is not only the “right to be let alone”, as Warren and Brandeis famously put it in 1890 [17], but is also a right to navigate different places offline without fear of digital harassment, and vice versa. The Korean case lends evidence that it is a very gendered privilege to be able to do so. Women are exposed to a whole new array of gender-specific risks, but government and law enforcement agencies have not responded adequately so far.

The third point is that in an environment where data about a person is generated, collected, and shared in a network of multiple online platforms, digital devices, and fellow individuals, privacy violations are bound to lead to ‘collective harm’. From this perspective, an increasing number of researchers, including Antonio Casilli and Zeynep Tufekci, argue that privacy in the contemporary communications environment is “more like air quality or safe drinking water”, i.e., “a public good that cannot be effectively regulated by trusting in the wisdom of millions of individual choices” [18]. In other words, it is no longer simply an individual right and is instead “a collective negotiation” [19]. The framing of privacy in individualist terms does not fully capture the networked nature of the challenge facing us. This needs to be the starting point for any technological and policy interventions, and what we are witnessing in Korea is a firm reminder of that.

Endnotes

[1] Fagan, K. (2018). The woman in the #PlaneBae saga breaks her silence — she says she’s been ‘shamed, insulted, and harassed’ since the story went viral and asks for her privacy. Business Insider, 13 July. http://uk.businessinsider.com/planebae-saga-woman-privacy-anonymity-2018-7.

[2] Ronson, J. (2015). How one stupid tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. The New York Times, 12 February. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html.

[3] Busby, E. (2018). Warwick University bans three students who joked about rape and racism on Facebook. Independent, 12 June. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/warwick-university-students-banned-rape-racism-jokes-facebook-chat-a8394911.html.

[4] Halliday, J. (2018). Tommy Robinson to be tried for contempt of court at Old Bailey. The Guardian, 16 October. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/oct/16/tommy-robinson-tried-contempt-court-old-bailey.

[5] Marwick, A. E. & Caplan, R. (2018). Drinking male tears: language, the manosphere, and networked harassment. Feminist Media Studies 18(4): 543–559.

[6] Hess, A. (2014). Inside AnonIB, where hacking is a sport and women’s bodies are the prize. Slate, 3 September. https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/09/anonib-nude-photo-site-where-hackers-and-users-treat-women-as-property.html; Liptak, A. (2018). Dutch police have shut down Anon-IB in the course of a revenge porn investigation. The Verge, 29 April. https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/29/17299020/anon-ib-the-netherlands-dutch-police-revenge-porn-shut-down.

[7] McGlynn, C. & Vera-Gray, F. (2018). No woman in a public place is free from the risk of upskirting — we must do more to tackle image-based sexual abuse. HuffPost, 23 November. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/upskirting-law-sexual-harassment_uk_5bf7c501e4b088e1a6888e47.

[8] Choi, J. (2017). These aren’t random objects. They’re hidden cameras. Korea Exposé, 20 October. https://www.koreaexpose.com/south-koreas-spycam-porn-epidemic/.

[9] Lee, G.-Y. (2018). Indelible molka videos outlive their victims and resurface as ‘posthumous work’ [in Korean]. Joongang Ilbo, 29 July. https://news.joins.com/article/22842232.

[10] These demonstrations were organised mainly by a nascent, issue-based online group called The Courage to Be Uncomfortable. Other notable activist groups in this area include Digital Sexual Crime Out (DSO) and the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center.

[11] McCurry, J. & Kim, N. (2018). ‘A part of daily life’: South Korea confronts its voyeurism epidemic. The Guardian, 3 July. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/03/a-part-of-daily-life-south-korea-confronts-its-voyeurism-epidemic-sexual-harassment.

[12] Agence France-Presse (2018). ‘Spycam porn’ sparks record protests in South Korea. France 24, 3 August. https://www.france24.com/en/20180803-spycam-porn-sparks-record-protests-south-korea.

[13] One of the first ones that drew public attention to the existence of a molka ‘cartel’ was the 1131st episode of Unanswered Questions, an investigative documentary programme by the national TV station SBS (28th July 2018). Another significant report was published by an online non-profit news organisation Newstapa about a whistleblower’s account of WeDisk, one of the online storage service companies that form a central part of such a cartel (30th October 2018).

[14] Lee, S.-Y. (2018). Heads of state-run organisations who used to head ‘webhard’ companies — do they really have nothing to do with the cartel? [in Korean]. Kukinews, 28 December. http://www.kukinews.com/news/article.html?no=616726.

[15] Lee, M.-H. (2017). Digital undertaker business booming. The Korea Times, 11 July. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2017/07/133_232783.html.

[16] John, N. A. & Peters, B. (2017). Why privacy keeps dying: the trouble with talk about the end of privacy. Information, Communication & Society 20(2): 284–298.

[17] Warren, S. D. & Brandeis, L. D. (1890). The right to privacy. Harvard Law Review 4(5): 193–220.

[18] Casilli, A. (2014). Four theses on mass surveillance and privacy negotiation: A French Digital Theory approach to a post-Snowden world. 26 October. https://medium.com/@AntonioCasilli/four-theses-on-digital-mass-surveillance-and-the-negotiation-of-privacy-7254cd3cdee6.

[19] Tufekci, Z. (2018). The latest data privacy debacle. The New York Times, 30 January. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/30/opinion/strava-privacy.html.

Author

Dr Yenn Lee is a widely published researcher in the sociology of digital technologies, participation, and social change, with a special interest in the Asia–Pacific region. She has also long collaborated with various activist and non-profit organisations outside academia, including Freedom House for its annual report Freedom on the Net since its first edition in 2011. In her current position as Doctoral Training Advisor at SOAS University of London, she leads an institution-wide researcher development programme for PhD students and teaches interdisciplinary research methods and skills.