SEOUL — "Shocking facts . . . suspicions about Choi Jin-sil."
The post about one of South Korea's most beloved actresses surfaced in an online club for stock investors last month, days after an actor friend of hers committed suicide. The post went on to claim that the dead actor had owed Choi money.
The rumor was copied and spread widely over the next days, with online posters blaming Choi's money lending for the actor's death. Choi, a national sweetheart long admired for overcoming adversity, resented and strongly denied the rumor. She said she was "scared that the world distorts friendship."
Less than two weeks later, Choi was found hanged in the bathroom of her house in Seoul, prompting some in the South Korean news media to point the finger at Internet gossipmongers, who were accused of driving the mother of two to take her life.
Though the reasons behind Choi's suicide remain unclear, her death has fueled a debate over how to tackle what are considered the two biggest social problems in South Korea: suicide and so-called cyber-terrorism.
Since Choi's death, many high-profile figures have expressed sympathy for her emotional suffering from comments made by online posters.
Chun Yeo-ok, a lawmaker with the ruling Grand National Party famous for her acid wit and provocative remarks, said she had been deeply hurt herself by Web-based rumors that circulated while she was running for office. It got so bad, she said, she contemplated jumping from her five-story office building.
"People who inflict cyber-terrorism must pay the appropriate price," Chun wrote in an Oct. 4 posting on her website.
In a program broadcast after Choi's death, Song Yoon-ah, another TV star who was once a target of online slandering, recalled a conversation with Choi.
"She advised me to stay away from the Internet, and not to read the comments," Song said in an interview with MBC TV.
Choi's suicide came at a time when government officials are pushing to introduce new clauses in communication laws to enforce harsher punishment for cyber-insults. The country is also preparing to extend an existing law that requires Web service providers to confirm social security numbers and the real names of users.
The Internet is a deeply ingrained part of South Korean society, where 9 in 10 households have access to cheap broadband. On every corner, stores are equipped with pay-per-hour computers, usually in use by young gamers. The nation's computer usage is among the highest in the world, with each user online an average of 34 hours a month, according to a 2007 survey.
The idea of introducing a cyber-insult law is finding traction in the wake of Choi's death, especially among the ruling party legislators.
"Currently we do not have clauses on what constitutes an [online] insult and what should be the punishment," said Shin Deok-soon, an aide to a ruling party lawmaker.
Others contend that current law can be applied to the crime of insult in cyberspace as well.
"There is no cyber-crime that is impossible to be punished under the current law. The recent court rulings that cited the crime of insult were all delivered to punish those insults in cyberspace," said Park Kyung-shin, a law professor at Korea University.
Some worry that new laws could have a chilling effect on free speech, and cite protests this summer against U.S. beef imports.
"During the candlelight rallies, when the Web users derided President Lee Myung-bak, calling him 'Gee-bak' [gee means 'rat' in Korean], the Korea Communications Commission advised those posters to refine their language," said Chang Yeo-kyung, an activist from Jinbo Network, a center that works to promote online privacy and freedom of speech. "The cyber-insult law may restrain people from criticizing the president or the government."
Some also question whether cyber-defamation and rumors are the real cause of the country's high suicide rate.
"Insults and complaints reflect the society, and South Korea is reported to have the lowest happiness rate" among leading industrialized countries, Park said. "The new policy is like wielding a rod to stop people from speaking out their discontent."