In the first half of 2020, many people in Korea were angered by the Nth Rooms incident, in which many women were sexually exploited. Since May 11th , when God God, the founder of the Nth rooms, was arrested, people’s attention has focused on digital sex crimes in Korea. Therefore, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) will describe what digital sex crime is, why it is a problem, and how Korea should respond to a digital sex crime in the future.
What Was the Nth Rooms Incident?
The Nth rooms case was a digital sex crime incident that targeted women through a deviant Twitter account while also using messenger apps such as Telegram since the second half of 2018. Criminals gathered women’s personal information by impersonating cyber investigators. These criminals then shared the exploitations and personal information of the women in eight different chat rooms, which are now referred to as the Nth rooms. The main victims were identified as minors, and they were said to be slaves.
What Is Digital Sex Crime?
Digital Sex Crimes
Digital sex crimes refer to sex crimes that occur online and offline through digital devices and information communication technology. Originally, digital sex crimes were called revenge pornography. Revenge porn, however, is a perpetrator focused term, and pornography is an expression that does not consider the presence of a victim. Therefore, this term has been replaced with digital sex crimes. Digital sex crimes not only include the distribution of exploited images and videos through hacking, taking, or stealing of images of other people’s bodies but also includes buying distributed images and videos. Digital sex crimes may not cause direct physical harm, but they could create secondary kinds of damage. Digital sex crimes should never be neglected.
According to digital sex crime damage research conducted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2019, 43% of 3,700 women in Seoul experienced digital sex crimes directly or indirectly. Digital sex crimes are the most rapidly increasing types of crime over the past 10 years in the ratio of sexually violent crimes. In fact, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, digital sexual crime has increased by about 23 times in the past 10 years. Moreover, 45.6% of victims of digital sex crimes thought of suicide, and 42.3% even made specific suicide plans.
1) Primary Damage
In 2016, a famous journal, Feminist Criminology, published a paper on the analysis of mental health damage suffered by survivors of digital sex crimes, named Revenge Porn and Mental Health - A Qualitative Analysis of the Mental Health Effects of Revenge Porn on Female Survivors. As a result of the analysis, the mental health problems of survivors of digital sex crimes were categorized as follows.
First, most of the victims could not trust other people and suffered a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. Second, victims felt suicidal thoughts with a high probability, and many of them were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety disorders. Anxiety increases over the fear that these exploited videos and images will continue to be distributed somewhere. Physical symptoms and psychiatric damage such as abdominal pain, headaches, and eating disorders may also occur, as the unexpected consequences of digital sex crimes become more severe.
2) Secondary Damage
Secondary damage refers to additional damage from the victim’s primary damage. Secondary damage affects the victim, as family, friends, and supporters of the victims also experience mental pain through verbal or non-verbal expressions that blame the victim based on a distorted perception of a sex crime victim. Secondary damage is also seen in investigations by investigative agencies such as the police. When victims visited an investigative agency, there were many secondary attacks, such as minimization of cases and victim-provoking theories. Also, victims have to prove the damage in the investigation process, which evokes memories of terrible experiences. One victim of a digital sex crime complained that she had to find and prove that the person who appeared in the video was her, and that made her feel like she was being raped. As a result of this type of investigation process, many victims appear to be hoping for the deletion of the videos, rather than further investigation into their cases. Secondary damage caused by investigative agencies decreases the reporting rates of sex crimes.
Loopholes in Digital Sex Crime Law in Korea
Korea, Responding to Digital Sex Crime
Until recently, digital sex crime was dealt with under the Information and Communications Network Act and the Sexual Violence Punishment Act in Korea. In other words, there was no practical law to punish digital sex offenders. According to the 2020 Sex Crime White Paper by the Ministry of Justice, which investigated all types of sexual crimes from 2008 to 2018, 602 out of 732 crimes related to pornography were simply given suspensions or fined rather than given prison sentences. After the Nth Rooms incident, which angered many people, the government urgently issued a Digital Sex Crime Eradication Measure. It includes methods for simplifying the process of deleting the exploitation videos. In the past, the process of deleting took three steps. When the victims reported an exploited video, the Korea Communications Commission (KKC) reviewed the report, and the agency requested their deletion from Internet operators. From now on, however, even without reporting, Internet operators will be requested to delete the video preemptively through a preliminary follow-up investigation, and the deliberation by the KCC will be delayed until after the deletion. Also, a provision has been added that Internet operators should delete digital sex crime contents as soon as they are identified. Otherwise, punitive fines will be imposed. The government drastically reduced the time to change the Resident Registration Number (RRN) leaked in the video, from three months to three weeks to protect the victims from secondary damage online and direct crime threats offline.
Why Digital Sex Crime Continues to Be a Problem Despite the Existing Law
1) Difficult to Crack Down
First, the use of cryptocurrency makes it very difficult to crack down on digital sex crime sites. In 2020, the investigative agencies in Korea announced that it was not easy to track members who purchased illegal videos with Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that allows anonymous transactions, including on illegal sexual exploitation sites. Moreover, digital sex crime content is usually distributed on foreign servers and platforms. In Korea, internet operators are obliged not to distribute illegal information. According to the KCC, however, 99% of digital sex crime contents are distributed on foreign servers and platforms, which are not affected by this law. Even if the exploitations are deleted from a foreign server, it is more difficult to arrest the people who have distributed and consumed it. This is because an arrest is possible only when the user’s information is provided from the site, but the foreign servers do not typically provide the user’s data. Indeed, when the KCC requested Telegram and Tumblr to cooperate for cracking down on illegal content, they rejected the requests. In response, on April 23rd, the government announced that they would introduce an offshore application regulation that makes it possible to crack down on illegal exploitation sites by prohibiting the distribution of illegal information to overseas businesses. However, until now, foreign servers existed as limitations of the crackdown, and the possibilities of these crackdowns in the future are also likely to be low.
2) Difficult to Actively Report
It is difficult for victims to report these types of crimes immediately, due to shock, confusion, embarrassment, and shame. As several YouTubers blamed the victims of the Nth rooms, society’s withering eyes, which attributes the cause of the crimes to the victims, also makes it difficult for victims to report. Furthermore, victims are not adequately protected against reprisals of offenders. In fact, people who watched the sexual exploitation video in the Nth rooms posted comments that implied collective sexual assault, at times disclosing the addresses of the victims. They even uploaded pictures showing that they went to a shop that was around a victim’s home. One of the victims of a digital sex crime revealed a threatening text message from the offenders. In the text, the offenders said that they would spread the videos so that the victim could not live in Korea. These types of threats make victims cope with the situation passively, hiding from the offenders, and ultimately leaving social networking services (SNS).
How Should Korea Move Forward
Government Should Provide Direct Assistance
The United Kingdom (UK) provides Revenge Porn Helpline services for digital sex crime victims. This service helps to delete exploitative content and assists in collecting evidence for related litigation. Though the Sunflower Center in Korea provides many services in one place, there are still overlapping roles of systems and institutions. Therefore, to be more like the UK, Korea should revise the system and clarify each function so that victims can easily be helped in one place. Moreover, the UK also helps victims who do not want to expose their personal information by operating the anonymous system homepage called Whisper. In Korea, it is necessary to create a site which provides counseling and helps victims to unite with each other anonymously. Also, the government should invest enough human resources and budget into preventing digital sex crimes. Currently, Australia is allocating the equivalent of 4 billion won to operate facilities for victims and 8.2 billion won to support victims. On the other hand, in Korea, the budget for dealing with digital sex crimes in 2019, which was set in 2018, was 2.6 billion won, but the whole budget was cut during the final negotiation process in January 2019. In addition, in 2018, only 26 people were assigned to deal with digital sex crimes in the KCC. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), as about 500 digital sex crimes occur each month, 26 counselors cannot adequately support them all. As digital sex crimes increase every year, Korea must invest more than twice the budget for digital sex crimes as other countries. Moreover, they should set more than four times the present number of counselors to allow each counselor to consult with less than 10 cases per month, which will make the consulting more profound and effective.
Currently, the United States (US) hands out sentences of 15 to 30 years to first-time sex crime offenders who have produced porn targeting minors, and 25 years to 50 years to recidivists. After the Nth Rooms incident, the Korean government also announced that they would sentence offenders who produced sex exploitation videos to more than 15 years and more than 10 years to distributors. However, it is still a lower punishment than the public wants, and it is still much weaker than in other countries. Therefore, the government should hand out sentences that better match public opinion. Harsher sentences are expected to serve as a way to eradicate digital sex crimes. Through international conventions and conferences related to digital sex crimes, the government should study and materialize the direction of the punishments.
Digital sex crimes have become more sophisticated and vicious by abusing the blind spots of Korean law. However, we cannot let them continue to run rampant anymore. To eradicate digital sex crimes, we all have to pay attention and make a greater effort.
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