The spark that ignited the 2019 exposé into South Korea’s insidious web of extortion, technology, and misogyny-guided desire culture, began when a student investigative journalist unit, Team Flame, stumbled across a google blog. Amongst the meticulously archived reviews of non-consensual intimate images (hereinafter referred to as NCII) and tips on evading cyber authorities, the blog provided a link to a public Telegram chatroom, The Godam Room. Here, members were flooded with previews or abridged clips of NCIIs said to be exclusively accessible through the Nth Rooms, yet another series of encrypted Telegram chatrooms.
A chaotic web of information-sharing across multiple social media platforms and community forums allowed for the rapid ballooning of Nth Rooms’ membership base – granted through means as simple as member-to-member admittance, or completing simple verification tasks assigned by the chatroom moderators. In addition to the expansive library of extorted footage and deepfakes available throughout the First to the Eighth Rooms (hence their collective grouping as the Nth Rooms), the chatrooms’ most infamous iteration was pegged to a tiered subscription model, in which members paid incremental mission fees to witness and even physically inflict live-streamed violence on – as branded by the moderators – enslaved women and girls. The Nth Rooms’ victims were sourced via a spectrum of phishing scams, where moderators harvested personally identifiable information and held it hostage for extorting violent sexual content.
In South Korea, where the filming and distribution of NCII is quantified as having reached an epidemic proportion, gendered sexual violence is neither unique nor confined along the exclusive borders of online-offline spaces. The operationalizing of the Nth Rooms capitalized on the pre-existing networked platforms, and leveraged these spaces to optimize collective access to, and banalization of, NCII as fixtures in the South Korean digital desire culture. By the time the Nth Rooms coverage dominated the mainstream media headlines in early 2020, the original chatrooms were dismissed by some as outdated; and holding true to their names, the Nth Rooms were already cycling through a sequence of re-branding, replication, re-sale, and circulation.
There is cautious optimism around the explosive public prosecution of the Nth Rooms, and its potential in setting legal precedence, both on the gravity with which various arms of the judicial system investigate digital sex crimes, and the weight of sentencing against perpetrators. However, where episodic criminalization serves as the litmus test for self-regulation-cum-deterrence, any subsequent preventative frameworks will most likely overlook the gendered affordances of platforms – and the shape-shifting capacity of misogyny across discourses of anonymity and security, to justify the socialized acceptance of NCII. This de-facto denial of platformed perpetration, shifts the burden of preservation, as always, on women and their truncated digital citizenship.
Platforming Misogyny: The South Korean Context
Feminists once aspired for the internet to serve as both the tool and arena for liberation. In such a ‘genderless utopia’, users’ ability to mutate through their digital interactions would render their gendered identities as inconsequential. With the absence of the subjects of oppression, gendered regimes and thus, the pre-conditions for existing powers and stratifications, could no longer be sustained.
We have since diversified from this assumption of mutual exclusivity. The frenzied blending of both content and communities upon interlinked digital platforms – and the prescribed impulse to rely on these infrastructures to resource socio-political, economic, and cultural capital – have made the distinction between the offline and the online increasingly irrelevant. The boundaries around what is considered private are also difficult to draw and safeguard, against a totalizing system specifically designed for easy circulation and consumption. This digital conditioning of blurred lines necessarily makes the internet neither autonomous to, nor resistant of, oppressions, including the structural violence against gendered bodies.
Against this backdrop of digitized platformed public, the birth of the Nth Rooms must also be contextualized against gendered nationalism. The genealogy of the South Korean personhood is a complex intermingling of post-colonial trauma, and the illusion of neoliberalism and militarization as foundations for the post-war comeback story. Central to this construct, is the privileging and mass-production of hegemonic masculinity as critical to the nation-building project, which necessarily entitles men as the structural beneficiaries of institutions, while enforcing the illusion of gender-neutral, capitalist meritocracy. This categorization of ideal citizens along the benchmarks of ‘What is Masculine’ also systematically others women and queer bodies, surveilled under masculinist morality and ownership.
In a self-affirming cycle, the South Korean gendered nationalism has been digitally reinforced through community-building guidelines – or rather, the complete lack thereof – found in male-dominant content-rating and discussion websites. While proximities of these forums to incel rhetoric vary, and must be deconstructed in the South Korean context, they have pioneered a localized interpretation of gendered e-bile – recreational production and mass-replication of extreme and explicitly violent content, designed to patrol women’s (and the marginalized others’) online presence and footprints.
Particularly devastating are the ways in which male community-sourced neologism has metamorphosized as a relevant cultural discourse in South Korea, and is being validated as reliable observations for regressive, prescriptive advocacy. Here, anxieties of losing male privilege are mapped onto categorizing women’s offline and online behavior into the binaries of acceptability (masculine/feminine, rational/irrational, frugal/shallow, wife/whore, fair/unfair), which are also enforced by women’s self-censorship, and the active buy-in of discourse as banter. The popularity of the molka – a term coined to describe both the micro-cameras and the act of capturing voyeuristic footages in private and public spaces – is a by-product of this marriage between misogyny and the norm-setting of the platformed public. Despite criminal laws for its prevention, molka’s prevalence has been sustained by the trivialization of its consumption as a genre of capitalized pornography; and the subsequent resignations of institutions in regulating a crime that is so collectively shared and widespread.
Regulating the Ungovernable: The Legal Watchtower
Once the investigative reporting of the Nth Rooms and affiliated operations was sensationalized by the mainstream media, public outrage was seemingly instantaneous. Two major national petitions submitted in March 2020 to President Moon Jae-in’s administration collective gained almost 5 million signatories, with demands to expose the offline identities of every participant who entered the chatrooms, and consumed, circulated, and contributed to the content archives. National indignation also coalesced around the disbelief that almost a quarter of those brutalized by the Nth Rooms were legal minors, or under the age of 19, and that the anonymized perpetrators operated across universally-recognized social media platforms to inflict both virtual, and embodied harms.
Legal frameworks for NCII have historically been criticized for their overreliance on the judiciary’s literal or statutory interpretation of what constitutes sexual stimulus; and the general pattern of leniency in fines, incarceration, and restitution. These failings place undue burdens on victims for substantiating proof of injury – often via their own compilation of evidence and monitoring of digital platforms – and tackling a series of official and unofficial law enforcement barriers to establish no-fault. Feminists note that laws with limited regards for the layered complexities of consent and agency, leave victims consumed in a cycle of abuse.
Against this historical context, the South Korean prosecution attempted to set legal precedence via the Nth Rooms for the terms of imprisonment for digital sexual crimes. And in upholding sentences ranging from one to 42 years for key members of the extortion operations, the courts signaled an uncharacteristic, though lacking, shift in legal consciousness around NCII. Similarly, in perhaps a rushed attempt to offset public outrage, the National Assembly swiftly passed a series of revisions to existing criminal and civil legislations, informally grouped under the Nth Room Prevention Act.
where episodic criminalization serves as the litmus test for self-regulation-cum-deterrence, any subsequent preventative frameworks will most likely overlook the gendered affordances of platforms – and the shape-shifting capacity of misogyny across discourses of anonymity and security, to justify the socialized acceptance of NCII. This de-facto denial of platformed perpetration, shifts the burden of preservation, as always, on women and their truncated digital citizenship.
By 29 April 2020, five key amendments were made to the criminal law under the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes: age of statutory or negligent rape was raised to 16, from 13; language around the statute of limitation on statutory rape, and child sexual exploitation, was completely omitted; prohibited acts on Article 14 were expanded to include ‘possession,’ in addition to distribution, sale, and exhibition of illegal sexual videos; the period for punitive measures was expanded; and perpetrators who coerced victims to be filmed in sexual or sexualized videos were subject to expanded imprisonment and monetary penalties.
The Telecommunication Business Act was also amended by 20 May 2020 in an attempt to enforce and expand the regulatory obligations for domestic social media platforms, and popular online search engines and their affiliated open community forums. Specifically, the revised act mandates that providers take immediate measures – akin to content filtering – to prevent the circulation of illegally-filmed and exploitative materials; and upon the request of the Korea Communications Commission, submit status of operation and data, as deemed relevant to the Act on Special Cases.
These revisions undoubtedly mark critical junctures in the nexus of the rights of South Korean women and the country’s digital legislative discourse. However, feminist critique urges for a closer examination on the limits of episodic remedies hinged on individual criminalization – and in dismissing the roles of banalized misogyny, the law’s restricted scope in enforcing the intermediary liability of platformed architectures.
Norm-setting through incarceratory measures assumes that concentrated removal of individuals from the internet can circuit-break NCII – and similar violations of rights. However, the timeline of criminality often pre-dates, and continues beyond, the few identified perpetrators. The Nth Rooms, for example, were only an iteration of the explicit content-sharing chatrooms. Moderators operationalized a de-facto system of almost ritualistic successions, collectively sharing and handing-over oversight responsibilities for content compilation and back-ups, membership management, and even, extortion. In tandem, the chatrooms’ archives depended on a flattened structure of shared responsibility, where members were encouraged to make their own content contributions, and directly expand the scale of subscribers through cross-postings of content and means of access on a wide spectrum of social media and community platforms. Even after the public reporting of investigations, these networked communities continued to function as an information-exchange hub; while users who ‘showed-off’ their past memberships were up-voted in performative public discussion threads. The re-birth of Nth Rooms’ copy-cat chatrooms is not only possible, but easy.
The confidence with which the masses consume NCII, reinforces the communities’ social standards of acceptability, where collective action also serves as a mechanism for extrajudicial, but communal, exoneration of bad behaviors. In this version of reality, structural-sexual violence against gendered bodies are trivialized – and desire culture is constructed specifically through rendering women as consumable content, whose agency and participation are of no consequence to male stimulus. Then, the concern is not whether the Nth Rooms cause victims irreparable harm; but rather, if subsequent verdicts threaten standards, and ways of life that disenfranchise men and male community culture.
while NCII is illegal in technicality, its consumption is tolerated due to the limitations of identifying and reporting, and the sheer costs of enforcing the law.
This shared complicity of an anonymized community proliferates the narrative of un-governability. It strengthens assumptions that while NCII is illegal in technicality, its consumption is tolerated due to the limitations of identifying and reporting, and the sheer costs of enforcing the law. Again, this is the platforming of the South Korean gendered nationalism, against the affordances of digital infrastructure. Digitized plazas’ allowances for anonymized participation in open chats and channels, under the rhetoric of preserving privacy and security, create augmented realities of tacit permissibility. The ‘legal watchtower’, while consequential to few, fails to moderate the masses via self-regulation – and re-emphasizes the mundane self-help instructions for internet conduct as women’s only recourse.
Undoubtedly, the Nth Rooms-driven revisions to the Telecommunication Business Act are riddled with shortfalls in their reliance of automated tools for filtering, especially in the absence of accessible, fast, and responsive mechanisms to victims’ requests for content removal. And while they specifically include a clause for compliance for any foreign activity that harms or affects domestic users, it is unlikely that internationally-headquartered and non-anchored platforms – such as Telegram or Discord – can be held accountable in the national jurisdiction, and be pressured to change their regulatory standards. Clearly, domestic legal frameworks must contend with strategies for engaging with digital infrastructures’ transgression of physical boundaries.
Since coming into effect in December 2021 and leading up to the 2022 Presidential Election, the Nth Rooms Prevention Laws have triggered a series of aggressive campaigning by the People Power Party (PPP). Pandering to the support of male-led online rhetoric, the PPP framed their critique of the regulatory reporting obligations as a crusade for internet freedom and protection of individual privacy. The PPP also cited unverified viral testimonials of filtering inaccuracies on Kakao, South Korea’s premier private and community messaging platform, and vowed to scale back the revisions as central to its campaign promise, if elected into office.
However, open internet can, and should, co-exist with the rights of physical and digital bodies for women, and their capacity to safely practice the fullest extent of public participation. Standard-setting in the platformed public need not exist in mutual exclusivity. Rather, the translations of the Act’s revisions in a framework of censorship are an active reinforcement of South Korea’s gendered nationalism – where the fallacy of misandry is socialized as both imminent, and interchangeable with threats against national and digital preservation. The revisions’ legislative reach is not overarching. Against a prevailing safeguard on data privacy, explicit content moderation is limited to open chatrooms and public community forums.
With PPP’s President-elect Yoon Seok-Yeol scheduled to take office in May 2022, after having secured his victory with a margin of less than one percent, the future of the post-Nth Rooms legal revisions is volatile. The PPP will endorse its masculinist rhetoric, to retain its key support demographic of men in their 20s and 30s (whom the party considers as the avenue to its futurity) – and ratify its campaign promises, including the partial dissolution, or at least a critical weakening, of the Ministry of Women and Family, and feminist-endorsed legal protections. While the soon-to-be opposition Democratic Party retains control of the National Assembly, the ramifications of the Executive Body’s expansive discretionary power – and the continuous pandering to the so-called male malady – threaten a scale-back on the bare minimum strategies required to circuit-break NCII; and a prescriptive re-affirmation of the internet’s playbook as ungovernable.
The Cyber Future and the Era of Gender Wars
The unfurling of the Nth Rooms in the court of public opinion, may have seeded aspirations for a feminist cyber future in South Korea. In August 2021, the Ministry of Justice established the Expert Committee on Digital Sexual Violence, to explore models of independent oversight and content moderation rooted in the language of rights-governance, and the lived experiences of women. Its survival is both partisan and precarious due to the party hand-over of the Presidential administration in May 2022; however, the committee marks a symbolic step towards applying measurable pressure for feminist ethics within the law-making and influencing spaces of the Blue House, the National Assembly, and with key technology figureheads. Kim Joohee’s 2020 social Big Data analysis shows the sizeable uptick in fluid online feminist organizing (coined as netfemi) – and their driving of public debate to popularize the otherwise taboo critique of misogyny and its gendering of culture. Online feminist mobilizing has also united grassroots movements for targeted prescriptive advocacy, including those united to preserve and protect the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Beyond the Nth Rooms, South Korea is fixated on the outcome of the Gender Wars. Reductionist in its analysis and a strategy to delegitimize, feminism is pitted as the direct antithesis, not to misogyny, but men; and gender relations are defined along the anatomical binaries of male/female. This only cements the boundaries already drawn up by misogyny’s ‘Us and Other’ paradigm, where queer bodies and identities are excluded and erased from the South Korean interpretations of feminism. Current mobilizing has called for an intersectional reframing; the reckoning, however, to address the hierarchy of rights that exist along the borders of queerness, coloniality, disability, and class have yet to take place in mainstream feminist discourse. Then, a pursuit of comprehensive interventions to NCII must also examine privileging of gendered norms in available legal frameworks, and actively prevent cyber policing of bodies, sex, and sexualities veiled under the protectionist façade.
This is the ninth piece from our special issue on Feminist Re-imagining of Platform Planet.