Freewheeling sexual content: The dark side of S. Korea’s internet broadcasting
SEOUL — Hundreds of people watched as woman in a livestream took off her clothes, leaving on nothing but her face mask and underwear. She told viewers that in 30 minutes, only those who “donate” 200 kons — the Popkon TV currency that equates to 20,000 won ($16.60) — would be allowed to join her in the “fan room.”
In fan rooms, livestreamers reveal even more of themselves, fulfilling the requests of viewers who pay extra until the platform shuts the room down for violating regulations on explicit content. The next day, the streamers repeat the same process all over again.
Despite the obvious sexual nature of some internet broadcasts, regulating them is no easy task.
Although there are Korean Communications Standards Commission regulations prohibiting the distribution of pornographic material, what constitutes pornographic material remains ambiguous.
The broadcasting of materials “explicitly showing or describing specific sexual parts of the body such as male/female genitals, pubic hair or anus” or explicitly describing sex-related acts are prohibited, KCSC’s Standards for Regulating Information and Communication Article 8, Section 1 states.
As such, female streamers are not explicitly violating the law when they expose their breasts in a broadcast while viewers pay of their own volition.
“Although anyone can tell the broadcasts contain sexual content, there are cases where a broadcast is considered legal just because genitals were not shown,” said Lee Hyo-rin, an activist of the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center civic group. “With these broadcasts, the platforms are making lots of money, and we consider that a form of sex industry.”
A major problem the KCSC faces is its inability to monitor the vast amount of internet broadcasts happening daily.
“The No. 1 internet broadcasting platform streams around 60,000 hours in total while the second-biggest platform streams around 15,000 hours,” said a KCSC official, expressing difficulties in monitoring them all. “The commission recognizes the severity of harm internet broadcasts can cause, and along with stronger regulations and monitoring, the commission is trying to cooperate with the industry so that they can self-regulate.”
On many mainstream online broadcasting platforms like Afreeca TV, Twitch and YouTube, where online personalities often play games or eat massive amounts of food, regulating sexual content is less of a problem. These platforms have strict algorithms and monitoring systems, automatically blocking materials using machine learning so that sexual contents cannot easily be broadcast. As such, there are few attempts by those interested in earning money through sexual content on these platforms.
However, for adults-only platforms that generate large profits from broadcasting sexual or violent content, such as Popkon TV and Panda TV, this is not the case. Platforms that allow adult content typically turn a blind eye to almost everything that goes on in the broadcasts, except for strictly regulating the showing of genitals in order to stay legal. As for the fan rooms where users explicitly show genitals, they can be shut down, but such a response is not immediate.
Although the total number of internet broadcasts reported for obscene content remains low, the number of cases continues to rise steadily. Last year 537 cases came under review, while 286 such cases were reviewed in 2017.
However, only 145 of the 1,349 internet broadcasting cases reviewed by the commission since 2017 resulted in punishment, restricting broadcasts by the streamers concerned or, in two cases, the platform. This is because the majority of cases under review by the KCSC are brought forward from individual online submissions by viewers who may not realize the regulation of the online broadcasting of sexual content is less severe than that for television.
Meanwhile, sexual content is not the only problematic content for the KCSC.
Another form of internet broadcasting that has emerged recently has been termed “hit broadcast.” In hit broadcasts, streamers are hit by another person with items like slippers, rubber bands or frying pans, depending on the amount of money donated. Many hit broadcasts are done with the subject already mostly disrobed.
If streamers consent to being hit and there are no lasting injuries, there are little grounds on which to penalize them. However, recently reported cases of hit broadcasts alongside sexual content could lead to stricter regulations.
Police arrested three people in their 20s in Incheon on May 29 for broadcasting minors stripping and being hit on Popkon TV. The case was reported to police by a reporter who received a call for help from one of the victims. As minors abused against their will were involved in the broadcast, the case was taken to police, bringing the exploitative nature of the broadcast to the surface.
Popkon TV told The Korea Herald that it cooperated with police by handing over evidence and that the platform restricted the perpetrators from broadcasting again. The company is also running multiple campaigns to restrict sexual and violent broadcasts, including in banner ads on the site. Yet come nightfall, sexual content continues to pervade the platform.
A local daily also reported a case in which a woman broadcasting sexual content on Popkon TV sued her agency’s CEO for fraud and coercion, among other charges, on June 9. She claimed the agency threatened her into stripping in the broadcast despite an initial agreement saying she would not be required to make sexual content.
The case marks the first time a streamer has taken her case to the courts. If the allegations are found to be true, the broadcast would be subject to regulations on sexual exploitation, a punishable offense. Also, if other streamers are found to have been similarly coerced, the case could result in a wide-scale investigation like the recent Nth room sex crime case. The sex crime case, currently under investigation, involved online chatrooms operators who shared videos and photos of women, including minors, being sexually exploited with allegedly tens of thousands of fee-paying viewers.
The streamer’s case is being investigated by Seoul Gangseo Police Station.
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