A perspective from Seoul on internet censorship

Simon Hunter-Williams gives his perspective on censorship in South Korea

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: Stuck in Customs (Trey Ratcliff)

Reporters Without Borders marked 'World day against Cyber Censorship 2011' with their annual report on internet censorship. They identified states as "Enemies of the internet" for the worst offenders, and "Countries under surveillance" for those states which have displayed worrying behaviour online. As well as identifying the usual suspects - Burma, China & Saudi Arabia, it also casts a glance towards democratic countries that include Australia and France.

Repressive regimes resort to all sorts of measures to control content, ranging from censorship, jailing cyber-dissidents and circulating massive amounts of propaganda online. Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said;

"Around 60 countries censor the Internet to varying degrees and harass netizens. At least 119 people are currently in prison just for using the Internet to express their views freely. These are disturbing figures and a good reason for each reader to be aware that there is something going on beyond the surface of the internet."

North Korea is also listed as an 'enemy of the internet', and is arguably the worst offender in the world. Internet availability is limited to just 4% of the total population and is heavily censored.

Like all North Korean media, the internet is under government control. As most Northern Koreans can't legally access the internet, many are now going through the black market, notably by using mobile phones imported from China. There remains a nationwide ban on mobile phone use since May 2004.

So, I find myself living in North Korea's neighbour, South Korea, in the capital Seoul - home to some ten million residents. However, I am little surprised that South Korea is mentioned in the Reporters without Borders report and is listed as 'under surveillance' for its 'draconian censorship'.

South Korea is known throughout the world for fast internet. OpenNet reports that 77% of South Koreans aged six and older use the internet – way ahead of America. It is a country that runs 24 hours (New York – you really aren't a 24 hour city!).

The internet is available in nearly every spot and is equally as fast, more than 90% of households use broadband – and – luckily it is not just about the buck, there are plenty of free internet spots which I found rare in London, Brussels, Paris, Sydney, New York and Tel Aviv.

As a general computer user, I rarely find that I am blocked from reading material online – save a few articles from YNet News (an Israeli news site) but that could well be a school filter. I do not as yet have internet at home, nor do I plan to due to the wide availability of the internet in public places.

I will not need to comply with strict regulations which require passport identification for internet subscription, I will no doubt be monitored but I will not have the chains implied by my service provider having my personal details at hand with such ease. Instead, I will enjoy coffee!

The South Korean government's agenda around internet usage seems politically motivated, intrigued in close monitoring of people's participation in speech, and morals to a larger extent. The constitution (article 21) ensures 'all citizens shall enjoy freedom of speechand press' whilst 'neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics' - therefore, the constitution is somewhat vague!

What is clear is that they are seeking to monitor people wanting to engage in discourse on political activities - whether that be elections, North Korea or simply an interest in pornography or gambling. The end user will be greeted only by 'This site is legally blocked by government regulations' (view for yourself here).

To 'disseminate false news intended to damage the public interest' in South Korea is also prohibited, one of the major sources of concern highlighted in the report.

Back in 2007, a handful of bloggers were censored after expressing criticism and support for presidential candidates, some were arrested. Then in 2009, legislation was introduced that ordered all internet portals to require identification for subscription to the internet.

This extends to foreigners who would need to provide a passport, as foreigners working in South Korea are required to hold an Alien card (which gives them similar abilities to residents of South Korea when holding a card – the ability to join a gym, to have a mobile phone – this is a country where plastic enables you to have your rights).

Why has this happened? This is a very traditional country. The people tend to just follow the norm, they tend not to think outside of the box and it is a very collective community. People seem to be content and ready to develop their own skills to serve their country. This would seem a clear reason for the lack of a critical or even revolutionary energy, because it is so easy to manipulate and monitor the people, the ship runs well so who would want to sink it?

This is a country that is trying to protect its traditional heritage in an ever-evolving world, it feels the need to keep people in check in order to counter the powerful enlightenment offered by the Western value system. Instead they are taking Western ideology and making it their own, merging the cultures on their terms.

So if we are looking from the angle of protecting heritage, then it is not an enemy of the internet, it just doesn't want the Korean identity to be put into the history books.

South Korea is a world leader, a great country to live in. Freedom on the surface seems to exist but inside cyberspace the chains are more evident. Many a conversation with local Koreans would suggest that they will stick with the status-quo, the government will do what it does, the corporate world that allegedly runs the show behind the government will maintain their strength and the people will happily follow – because it is the right thing. People believe in their country, and the country's progression is their own progression.

Simon Hunter-Williams is a freelance journalist and photographer. He is currently based in Seoul, South Korea and works as an English teacher


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Comments (1)

  1. Jim Killock:
    Mar 31, 2011 at 04:02 PM

    Thank you, Simon. Very interesting. The constitutional balance you mention seems highly limiting on freedom of speech, draconian even. There are other things happening on the copyright front as well, I think?

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By Simon Hunter-Williams on Mar 31, 2011

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