Korean move may pave way for global online clampdown


WIRED:LAST WEEK I wrote about what I’d seen in Thailand, a Far East country that has just beginning to see widespread broadband internet adoption, but which risks losing its own internet industry because of laws that make ISPs and web hosts liable for everything their own users or customers do online, writes DANNY O’BRIEN

You would think they would be less careless in South Korea, which has a global reputation as one of the most advanced internet societies in the world.

More than 95 per cent of Korean homes have high-speed broadband (where “high speed” can mean up to 100 Mbit/s for less than $50). Almost all of Korean mobiles have internet access.

Korean news, politics and entertainment are heavily interwoven with high-tech communications: the country has some of the most popular multi- user games in the world and pioneered citizen journalism long before the West.

The victory of iconoclast politician Roh Moon-Hyun in the 2002 presidential elections was ascribed to his supporters’ use of the net and mobile messaging.

However the tide has turned since the idealistic days of president Roh. Since the collapse of his administration, the “386 generation”, the young cyber- savvy net users who were key to his victory, have declined in influence.

Instead, regulation of the internet has become a political and generational pawn.

Sensationalist reports of internet and video-gaming addiction, net- enabled vigilantes and economy ravaging gossip have led to the swift passing of restrictive net laws and prosecutions, with the promise of more to come.

The recent economic instability has fanned the flames of this hysteria.

In January, the anonymous economic blogger Minerva, whose claim to fame was to have successfully predicted the collapse of Lehman Brothers, as well as the sharp recent decline in Korea’s currency, was unmasked and arrested by the government for threatening the economic stability of the country.

Instead of being a prominent expert or official, as government ministers clearly believed, Minerva turned out to be the archetypal blogger – a self-taught man in his 50s who had never attended university.

Minerva’s prosecution ended with his acquittal, but that has merely hardened the current administration’s call for tighter regulation.

The conservative government, led by President Lee Myung-Bak, has continued to push for tighter cyber-crime laws.

The Korean “real name” system, which requires users to give up their ID card number whenever they post to the internet, is being expanded.

In February, as a direct result of the Minerva case, a law was proposed that would allow the government to criminally prosecute “defamers” online, even without the consent or notification of their victims.

These laws, if passed, will add to the already tightened controls on the Korean net.

Currently, anyone who believes themselves to have been maligned online can require ISPs to take down any content for 30 days.

There is no possible challenge to this demand from the person whose site is deleted.

ISPs have no freedom to check the veracity of the claim and it’s not even clear whether the content can return online after the month is ended.

South Korean clampdowns on filesharing have been growing more draconian too.

Unlike the United States and Europe, copyright holders can complain to law enforcement about filesharing. State prosecutors will then pursue a criminal case against the filesharer.

In 2006, music and film companies complained to the police about 20,000 times. By 2008, the number of complaints had risen to 91,000.

The rightsholders will usually write directly to the filesharer before reporting them, offering a cash settlement. So presumably these 91,000 cases are just those who refuse to or cannot afford to settle.

While the prosecutors only pursue a fraction of these cases (suggesting that in most cases, the rightsholders do not have the conclusive evidence they claim), the chilling effect can be stark – even fatal.

In 2007, one high-school student received a court summons about his downloading of online novels. In November, he died by suicide out of fear of punishment. More than 2,000 of the complaints in 2008 related to juveniles.

If you speak to young South Koreans, they will tell you these new laws are a generational attack.

The anti-internet sentiment is lead by the older, conservative Koreans, who were disturbed by the swift rise of the tech-savvy youngsters and pushed back against its chaotic enthusiasm after the Roh administration dissolved into corruption charges, broken promises, and internal infighting. (Roh himself died by suicide earlier this year.)

It should also spell out a warning to other countries which are now edging towards Korean levels of engagement online.

Many new political figures, from President Barack Obama in the United States to President Correa in Equador, have tied their political banner to the internet in the way that Roh did.

New contenders for power continue strive to be the “internet candidate”.

When the political pendulum swings again, though, perhaps we’ll see more “anti-internet candidates”, who will run on a platform of controlling and limiting free speech online.

Korea may turn out to be all our futures.