South Korea can boast one of the world’s fastest average internet connection speeds, but the country also rates highly in censorship stakes.
[This story was written originally for ZDNet in August 2015.]
South Korea has the world’s fastest internet with connectivity clocked at 25.3MBps by Akamai Technologies last year. That’s over two times better than the 11.5MBps measured in the United States. Such a wired environment, coupled with wide internet use, seem optimal grounds to foster free, creative discussions among peers in a democracy.
But it is another matter as far as internet freedom goes. The country’s internet censorship body, which watches over the comings and goings of South Koreans’ online activities, recently ordered 13 pieces of content on websites to be scrubbed that it determined were “misleading”.
The main cause was the recently ratcheted up tension between North Korea; the hermit state accused of planting mines in the borders that injured two South Korean soldiers. South Korea responded by playing loudspeaker propaganda, and the two Koreas exchanged fire last week. It ended when the two sides reached a deal to diffuse the tension.
“The deleted websites were neither ‘pro-North Korean’ websites nor included ‘pro-North Korean’ messages. They included misleading content on the North’s recent provocations — land mine blasts, firing of a shell into Yeoncheon — falsely accusing the South of fabricating provocations,” said a spokesperson from the Korea Communications Standards Commission.
The KCSC refused to identify by name the websites affected by its decision or say what it censored specifically.
“Deleted or blocked URLs are not open to [the] public by law,” said the spokesperson, but the censorship body did forward general descriptions of the “false accusations” and “misleading contents” in question.
Many South Koreans took to the internet to raise questions on some of the allegations that South Koreans made against the North.
They covered a handful of topics, including that “North Korean soldiers did not plant the land mines and it was the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS)”. Another “misleading” piece of content claimed that the NIS and the country’s main conservative party are trying to divert attention away from a domestic hacking scandal.
The KCSC deletes or blocks online content concerning North Korea regularly. Criticism of government infringement on internet freedom in South Korea is not new either. Freedom House last year ranked the country’s internet as “partly free” for shuttering websites through IP blocking and forcing ISPs to scrub content.
In 2013, 22,986 webpages were deleted, and another 62,658 were blocked at the request of KCSC, according to a US-based non-profit.
South Korea’s censors believe they are protecting against threats to national security, and comments they see as praising North Korea, and denouncing the U.S. and/or the South Korean government raise red flags.
The KCSC also censors pornography and gambling, which are illegal in South Korea, as well as content deemed as harmful to minors. Online games are odious, too. South Koreans have to enter national identity numbers to play online games and, until last year, minors 16 years old or younger were banned from midnight to 6:00 am. The so-called “shutdown” law was amended last year with a parental consent clause.
Nearly 85 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2013, and a significant number of young people get their news exclusively from online sources.
As a result of considerable interference by the government into people’s online lives, many use VPNs. According to Global Web Index’s 4Q 2014 report, 10 percent of South Koreans aged between 16 to 64 years old use a VPN to access content online, meaning 3.3 million people use the internet with a VPN.
All this raises the perennial question — especially when North Korea is the issue — of what comes first: Freedom of speech or national security? Outside of South Korea, the best example is the Snowden leaks.
This seems a question that the global community will continue to debate going forward.