The Economist explains
Why South Korea is really an internet dinosaur
South Koreans may enjoy unusually speedy internet connections, but they are not allowed to use them freely.
SOUTH KOREA likes to think of itself as a world leader when it comes to the internet. It boasts the world’s swiftest average broadband speeds (of around 22 megabits per second).
Last month the government announced that it will upgrade the country’s wireless network to 5G by 2020, making downloads about 1,000 times speedier than they are now. Rates of internet penetration are among the highest in the world.
There is a thriving startup community (Cyworld, rolled out five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, was the most popular social network in South Korea for a decade) and the country leads the world in video games as spectator sports.
Yet in other ways the futuristic country is stuck in the dark ages. Last year Freedom House, an American NGO, ranked South Korea’s internet as only “partly free”.
Reporters without Borders has placed it on a list of countries “under surveillance”, alongside Egypt, Thailand and[ so on], in its report on “Enemies of the Internet”. Is forward-looking South Korea actually rather backward?
Every week portions of the Korean web are taken down by government censors. Last year about 23,000 Korean webpages were deleted, and another 63,000 blocked, at the request of the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), a nominally independent (but mainly government-appointed) public body.
In 2009 the KCSC had made just 4,500 requests for deletion. Its filtering chiefly targets pornography, prostitution and gambling, all of which are illegal in South Korea.
But more wholesome pursuits are also restricted: online gaming is banned between midnight and 6am for under-16s (users must input their government-issued ID numbers to prove their age).
Sites from North Korea, including its state newspaper, news agency and Twitter feed, are blocked, as are those of North Korea’s sympathisers. A law dating back to the Korean War forbids South Korean maps from being taken out of the country.
Because North and South are technically still at war, the law has been expanded to include electronic mapping data—which means that Google, for instance, cannot process South Korean mapping data on its servers and therefore cannot offer driving directions inside the country.
In 2010 the UN determined that the KCSC “essentially operates as a censorship body”. Some Koreans are resisting.
In 2011 Park Kyung-sin, a dissenting commissioner, posted a picture of Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde” on his blog, in protest at the KCSC’s order to block a picture of a man’s genitals—like that found in a science textbook—that he had previously posted on the same blog. He was convicted and fined, though the charges were later lifted.
In 2012 a 15-year-old Korean cyber-game champion was locked out of a game of “Starcraft II” while playing after midnight in a competition that was taking place during the day in France. (By the time he reconnected, by entering the details of a parent’s ID card, he had lost the match.)
The watchdog has no sense of humor: in 2012 a photographer received a suspended ten-month prison term for retweeting a series of North Korean propaganda posts, likening his inheritance of his father’s studio to the North’s leadership transition.
Park Dae-sung, a blogger who posted prophecies on the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the crash of the won in 2008 under the pen name of Minerva, spent 104 days in prison for “spreading false rumors”.
Critics spy political interference. In 2004 internet users were required to input their names and ID numbers on political comments in the run-up to an election. In 2009 those posting any comments on websites with over 100,000 daily visitors were required to do the same.
That law has since been rescinded. But although the government is beginning to ease some restrictions, it is stepping up its monitoring of social media.
The KCSC set up a special sub-committee on social media in 2011, and the following year asked for 4,500 comments on Twitter, Facebook and the like to be removed—13 times more than in 2010.
Last year the number of comments deleted increased again, to 6,400. Some officials seem to enjoy posting rogue comments as well as deleting genuine ones.
A group of intelligence agents are now under investigation for allegedly posting thousands of messages under false identities in support of Park Geun-hye, now South Korea’s president, in the run-up to the 2012 election. (There is no evidence that Ms Park had ordered this.)
In December she said that the government needed to “correct the wild rumors spreading through social network services”, referring to public outcry at the privatisation of railways and health care. South Koreans may enjoy unusually speedy internet connections, but they are not allowed to use them freely.