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4 South Korean bloggers face click fraud charges

In its fight to tame an often lawless Internet, South Korea has added a new charge to its criminal ledger: click fraud.

This isn’t any for-profit racket to manufacture phony Internet hit counts and scam advertisers who pay for each new visitor.

There is no financial gain from this kind of hit manipulation. Many say it’s innocuous. Instead, it involves bloggers who inflate the number of visitors to their websites to generate more interest in their comments -- and in the case of the four bloggers, those comments were anti-government rants.

In what South Korean authorities say may be the first prosecution of its kind, the four were indicted this week on charges of manipulating Web hits on their writings in an online forum.

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Their methods were both high- and low-tech: There were sophisticated viral programs, but one blogger placed a coin on the refresh key so it continued to repeat hits on his posting.

The charges came weeks after police here seized the home computers of the four bloggers, who had criticized the South Korean government and advocated protests after demonstrations last May against U.S.-imported beef.

The Seoul police department’s cyber crime unit told reporters that one of the bloggers was the 49-year-old director of a private academy.

It was unclear what penalty the four faced, if convicted.

Authorities say the bloggers illegally obstructed the business of Daum Communications, a South Korean Internet portal, which operated the forum. The investigation began after a tip from Daum officials.

“They were alleged to have manipulated hits via virus programs,” Park Hyun-jung, a Daum Communications spokeswoman said of the bloggers. “If that is true, it obviously hurts our company’s credibility.”

In a statement released Thursday, Seoul police said the phony clicks could “lead to a distortion of public opinion on the Internet.”

The indictments come as the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak wages what many here call a war against Internet freedom.

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In January, a blogger who went by the name of Minerva was arrested on charges of posting malicious rumors about the South Korean economy. A judge later dismissed the charges.

The government has sought to outlaw what it calls Internet rumor-mongering and may seek legislation that would require online posters to use their real names.

Last month, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that fined a man $2,300 for manipulating the number of clicks on a company’s website. The move was allegedly a scheme to lift its popularity ranking among domestic Internet portals.

Police said the four bloggers indicted Wednesday increased the number of hits on their posts by 110,000 to 930,000 clicks.

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Because of the bogus hits, some of the posts were listed among the “best articles of the week” on various Web portals.

“I boosted hit counts in order to let many people learn of my opinions,” reporters quoted one blogger telling police.

The indictments brought barbs from bloggers.

In one posting titled “The police have got rabies,” activist blogger Jin Joong-kwon observed: “The police really don’t have a lot of work to do.”

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He added: “What in the world is this country coming to when it rounds up those who click a few times on their posting?”

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john.glionna@latimes.com


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