South Koreans often point out that they have one of most the Internet-connected societies in the world.
More contentious is just how free the country’s Internet users are to use it as they choose. Korea made Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” list for a fourth straight year on March 12, alongside the likes of Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates as a country “under surveillance,” the category before “enemy.”
The report noted that removal-of-content requests by the president-appointed, nine-member Korea Communications Standards Commission have soared since its establishment in 2008. Such requests to Internet service providers, backed by the threat of fines for noncompliance, rose from about 1,500 annually before 2009 to 80,449 in 2010. Reasons for removal included content being deemed defamatory, obscene, or damaging to national security.
Park Kyung-shin, a commissioner as well as critic of the KCSC, paints a grim picture of Internet censorship in one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
“Recently, the prosecutors’ office arrested a Twitter user who merely retweeted North Korean propaganda with his parodic comments. This is how intensive the regulation is, even without the KCSC. The same with obscenity. As to the protection of children, it should be parents’ responsibility not administrative bodies whose across-the-board or self-identifying rules always restrict adults’ free speech,” Park said Voice.
Park says that the right to free expression online is particularly important in this country.
“Korea is a very hierarchical society. Internet has provided the rare opportunity for people to communicate with one another on equal terms. Korea will lose an opportunity for social and cultural advancement if Internet freedom is lost,” he said.
Park himself became a target of his own commission over his blog highlighting the kind of content the KCSC regularly seeks to remove. The offending material was a non-pornographic picture of a man’s genitalia. Park has since been indicted by the prosecution on obscenity charges he believes are politically motivated.
The KCSC declined to answer questions on a number of issues including its handling of Park’s case, its justification for “censoring online content” and the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s strong criticism of Internet censorship here.
In a statement to The Korea Herald, the Korea Communications Commission, a government body distinct from the KCSC that sets communications policy, addressed rapportuer Frank La Rue’s criticism.
“The Korean government is very firm about its efforts to protect freedom of expression as well as efforts to minimize restrictions on freedom of expression. … The report was biased because it only took into account special cases and as a result the report evaluated Korea’s freedom of expression in a biased way. La Rue’s report seems to lack an appreciation of Korea’s special characteristics of the Internet regulation environment and review system,” said a spokesman.
The spokesman also noted that the Constitutional Court had recently upheld the constitutionality of Korea’s regulatory framework.
After being sent a revised list of questions, KCSC spokesman Han Tae-seon defended the body’s role in safeguarding against harmful content, denying that it impinges upon freedom of expression.
“Although people are free to express themselves, they should not use profanities or distort the truth because this may harm public discourse,” Han said.
“Freedom of expression is a constitutional right and so it is not a question of ‘striking a balance.’ Nothing we review or restrict is to violate the right to freedom of expression.”
Han added that the KCSC does not censor content, but merely makes requests of websites and Internet providers, some of which are not followed. As evidence of this, he pointed to a 2008 KCSC request, put to him by The Korea Herald, that a website “purify language and refrain from exaggerated expressions” over a message calling President Lee “2MB” and a “sly person.” “2MB” refers to President Lee’s initials, but can also be interpreted as a derogatory reference to his intelligence.
“We sent a request to the caf manager and it was up to him to decide how they would respond, but as far we know after we checked the posting again little had been changed,” Han said.
He said that particular request had been made on the grounds of “other necessary measures,” as provided by the law governing Internet content.
Furthermore, the KCSC, he said, is highly transparent in its decision making.
“The review process is available on our homepage, and members of the public can sit in on our deliberations except in cases of defamation,” Han said.
But critics such as Oh Byoungil, a staff coordinator at Jinbonet, a left-leaning organization for Internet freedom, question the need for a body that has been “misused by the powerful to suppress criticism,” including negative postings about former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and other pro-government figures.
Rather, the Jinbonet coordinator believes that the Internet community should be allowed to regulate itself.
“I don’t think we need an administrative body to regulate the internet. Are there any other countries in which the administrative body can regulate the internet? Self-regulation by the Internet community or ISP can be one solution to regulate the content harmful to minors. If the content is illegal, it can be regulated by the court. However, the KCSC has regulated even content which is not illegal, and it’s not a competent body to decide illegality of the content,” he said.
The removal and blocking of content is not the only threat to Internet freedom, say activists. The real-name system, which forces online users to supply their name and Resident Registration Number when posting on websites with more than 100,000 daily visitors, has been controversial since its introduction in 2007. The rule came in for renewed criticism last year after the personal details of 35 million Cyworld users were stolen by hackers last July. In December, the KCC announced it would phase out the system by 2014.
Critics also complain of political bias when it comes to what is restricted and why.
“It is not just the KCSC, but all administrative entities are charged with the direct or indirect mandate of upholding the policy goals of the democratically elected head of the state,” said Park, who is also a lawyer.
“However, such a mandate, if applied to the free speech area, is deemed unconstitutional. Korea relies heavily upon administrative bodies whose role has been challenged as politically and culturally biased. Administrative bodies should stay out of areas concerning freedom of speech.”
Han rejects any suggestion that the KCSC is open to political bias or manipulation.
“(The law) states that the commission should not be influenced by outside interference or special favors. By following this law we are following our political neutrality.”