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(LEAD) Constitutional Court declares telecom law unconstitutional

All Headlines 17:31 December 28, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with civic groups' responses in last four paras)

SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- The Constitutional Court said Tuesday that the telecommunications law that punishes netizens for spreading false information and rumors online is unconstitutional because it involves obscure expressions and excessive punishment.

A famous online pundit, known by his Internet alias "Minerva," had filed a petition with the top court after being indicted on charges of spreading false information in violation of the telecommunications law in early 2009.

He was later acquitted but his arrest sparked controversy over freedom of expression on the Web.

According to the law, those who spread false information on the Web and by cell phone to harm the public interest face up to five years in prison and 50 million won (US$43,500) in fines.

The court said that the law is unconstitutional, because it lacks clear definition of "false" and "public interest" and imposes excessively harsh punishment on the rule violators.

"The false information should be also protected by freedom of expression and can be limited only by the Constitution and comprehensible laws," said the court in a verdict. "The law uses ambiguous conditions to ban all types of communications including necessary ones."

The Internet blogger gained a reputation after predicting the collapse of U.S. lending giant Lehman Brothers in his stories posted on a portal bulletin board. His harsh criticism of the government's economic policies spread quickly through the Internet, raising curiosity about his identity.

The prosecution had argued his postings led to dollar hoarding, costing the government $2 billion in emergency funds to stabilize the currency market.

The court ruling immediately rekindled a heated debate over Internet censorship and freedom of expression. Liberal civic groups welcomed the ruling, but conservatives said that groundless rumors will run rampant online as there is no means to control them.

"The Constitutional Court emphasized that freedom of speech and expression is important in a democratic society," said Goh Gye-hyun, director general of the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, a Seoul-based liberal civic group.

Bong Tae-hong, president of Right Korea, a right-wing organization, said, "Wild rumors and false information will spread unchecked and pro-North Korean groups will make use of it with ill intentions."

"The ruling doesn't mean that the spread of false information is OK," said Jeon Hee-kyung from the Citizens United for Better Society. "The government should come up with measures that do not violate freedom of expression but protect others' rights and public order."


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