Power, the Internet and real name systems


Much of the focus on social networks and the Internet is in their emancipatory potentials. The argument goes that as we have new and abundant ways of connecting we are more empowered through the global reach and amplification of our voice. But is this really the case?

Surveillance poses a big threat to civil liberties, particularly in terms of speech. While DCTs give us power, the power arrangement is being fundamentally transformed by another force: big government. This is an issue that affects everyone, but today I will be exploring real name registration in South Korea as a case study into methods of control.

Lee argues that there has been a shift from a disciplinary society in authoritarian regimes to a control society of the civilian government, as in the case of South Korea. The main difference being that the former used the “physical presence of the observer or controller, while the civilian administration has been normalizing the regulatory control by means of more de-centered and modulated techniques of control.” (see Lee, p.2)


Control societies have emerged with the digitization of information as new technologies enhance the ability of governments to “digitize collect sort and control the activities of citizens (see Lee, p.3). And just as we have been able to escape the trappings of analogue days, modern power has a new means “to escape from the confinement of barriers, fences and borders into the free floating control of flow, speed and mobility.” (See Lee, p.3)

South Korea in some respects is a different case because methods of control have been historically implemented, through legislation for example. There, every citizen is identified through a national ID system, which collects a vast range of data from everyday purchases and comments on the Internet through to education, health and personal records. This system had been linked with a real name system on the Internet requiring users to enter their national ID number to use websites, only amplifying the old disciplinary technique. But this has not been the only type of control the South Korean Government has over DCTs, outlined in the table below is more:


From Lee, p.10.

Caralingo finds that the enforcement of “the “real name system” prevents anonymity of expression, which can be considered as a form of pre-censorship” (see p.11). He also argues that while very few netizens are directly affected by the need for anonymity such as whistleblowers or political activists, real name registration affects the atmosphere of the web and it mostly affects the “creative, scholarly, and technically innovative population.” The policy also alientates web users and degrades the appeal of content-driven social media. (See From the Perspectives of Citizens, in Caralingo).


Content driven social media refers to micro blogs such as Twitter, Weibo and they are more concerned with the what is posted rather then the who is posting, as opposed to a services to facilitate personal relationships such as WhatsApp or WeChat which are less affected by this because they already collect more personal data, such as phone numbers. Content driven networks are more likely to be affected because their content can be more politically sensitive or topical and have a dual use as an organizational tool for rallies etc. (See Social-Driven vs. Content Driven, in Caralingo)

At the same time, providers are the enforcers of such system and content driven networks are also more likely to resist implementing real name systems. In part because they will be more affected, and also because they face the threat of losing market share to other providers if they are the first mover causing a general reluctance.

The response of many service providers in Korea to the real name system, including Google, was to redirect web users to circumvent registration. This meant that more Koreans used foreign web services and Korean companies created foreign domains, eventually, as Caralingo argues, “the threat of losing market share to foreign companies unified an influential domestic constituency.” (See the “First Mover problem, in Caralingo)

In August 2012, the Korean Constitutional Court overturned the law that links the real name system with the national ID system determining that it was an infringement on free speech of the individual and an impost on the service provider. The court also found that the use of real names didn’t evidence any changes in encouraging responsible speech and therefore could not be justified.

This was a great victory for Internet freedom but what it highlights more then anything else is the difficultly of enforcing such a system and the cost. Compliance was a big problem across the board and it was resisted by most providers as an administrative burden in identity verification and a costly exercise in cyber security in protecting their personal data treasure-troves.


Perhaps what is helping us resist big government is the dentralised nature of the Internet and its secondary organizational layer with private service providers. Brown and Szeman (see p.13 in Lee), argue the digital network is “simultaneously a description of the material of contemporary power, and the necessary form of counter-insurgencies opposed to this power.”

But while the real name registration system is an obvious warning that you are being watched, this type of surveillance goes on to a greater or lesser extent in every country around the world. The scary thing is it has become naturalized to the point where we don’t give our privacy a second thought. Should we be more worried about our privacy and our freedom to speak? Take the poll below.




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