Reports indicate that the government conducts some surveillance of mobile-phone conversations and short-message service (SMS) or text messages. The National Communications Centre (NCC) reportedly has the technical capabilities and staffing to monitor both SMS and voice traffic originating outside South Africa.23 Calls from foreign countries to recipients in South Africa can allegedly be monitored for certain keywords; the NCC then intercepts and records flagged conversations. While most interceptions involve reasonable national security concerns, such as terrorism or assassination plots, the system allows the NCC to record South African citizens’ conversations without a warrant.There have been no reports of extralegal intimidation targeting online journalists, bloggers, or other digital-technology users by state authorities or any other actor.
Moshoeshoe Monare, “Every Call You Take, They’ll Be Watching You,” Independent, August 24, 2008, http://www.iol.co.za/index.phpset_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=vn20080824105146872C312228, accessed March 27, 2009.
SOUTH AFRICA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net SOUTH KOREA 2009 POPULATION: 48.9 million INTERNET FREEDOM n/a Partly INTERNET PENETRATION: 82 percent STATUS Free WEB 2.0 APPLICATIONS BLOCKED: No Obstacles to Access n/a SUBSTANTIAL POLITICAL CENSORSHIP: Yes Limits on Content n/a BLOGGERS/ONLINE USERS ARRESTED: Yes Violations of User Rights n/a PRESS FREEDOM STATUS: Free Total n/a INTRODUCTION South Korea’s internet infrastructure is one of the most advanced in the world, and its democratic institutions—including an independent judiciary—generally protect free expression. However, regulatory measures such as a real-name registration system and a recent series of arrests of bloggers have presented challenges to internet freedom. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and international human rights groups have voiced concerns that the space for free expression has been diminishing since protests against American beef imports that broke out in 2008.South Korea’s high internet penetration rate is widely attributed to a series of stateled initiatives implemented since the 1990s, such as Cyber Korea 21 (1999–2002), the eKorea Vision 2006 (2002–2006), and the U-Korea Master Plan (2006–2010). The government’s rationale for this policy of nationwide promotion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is that a country with few natural resources like South Korea must move quickly toward a knowledge-based economy if it is to compete with Frank La Rue, “Full Text of Press Statement Delivered by UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, After the Conclusion of His Visit to the Republic of Korea,” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 17, 2010, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/opinion/docs/ROK-Pressstatement17052010.pdf; Irene Khan, “Statement by Irene Khan, Amnesty International Secretary General, on the Completion of Her Visit to South Korea,” Amnesty International, November 24, 2009, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA25/013/2009/en/81c8df37-c1d9-4d49-aa8c825cd7ce9203/asa250132009en.pdf; Reporters Without Borders, Enemies of the Internet—Countries Under Surveillance (Paris:
Reporters Without Borders, March 12, 2010), http://en.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/Internet_enemies.pdf.
SOUTH KOREA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net established economic powers.2 Cyber Korea 21 was well received by the Korean public, partly because such a rationale appealed to them in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and partly because a foundation of computer-mediated communications had already been laid. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PC tongshin (PC communication) culture had thrived, using an early, text-based form of online communication comparable to the Minitel in France. The half-dozen PC tongshin service providers then helped ease the Korean public onto the internet, the commercialization of which began around 1994.
OBSTACLES TO ACCESS South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world, in terms of both internet penetration and high connection speeds. As of 2009, there were an estimated 39.4 million users, comprising about 80 percent of the population.3 According to the National Bureau of Statistics, as of December 2010, over 80 percent of households had access to the internet,and nearly all connections are broadband. The country has not only the highest number of broadband connections per capita in the world but also the world’s highest rate of WiFi hotspots per capita, with 55,000 hotspots in place throughout the country by the end of 2010.5 Several factors have contributed to the country’s high level of connectivity. First, high-speed connections are relatively affordable. Most residences have connections capable of reaching 100 mbps for a cost of around 30,000 won (US$28) per month.6 Second, the population is highly concentrated in urban areas. Roughly 70 percent of South Koreans live in cities dominated by high-rise apartment buildings that can easily be connected to fiberoptic cables.7 Finally, the government has carried out programs to expand infrastructure and access, including subsidies to provide access to low-income groups.8 In terms of mobile National Computerization Agency, Informatization White Paper 2002: Global Leader e-Korea (Seoul: NCA, 2002), http://www.itglobal.or.kr/_file/m_board/download.aspfile=%BF%B5%B9%AE_b2002eng.pdf.
International Telecommunication Union, “ICT Statistics 2009: Estimated Internet Users, Fixed Internet Subscriptions, Fixed Broadband Subscriptions,” ITU ICT Eyes, 2009, http://www.itu.int/ITUD/icteye/Reporting/ShowReportFrame.aspxReportName=/WTI/InformationTechnologyPublic&ReportFormat=HTML4.&RP_intYear=2009&RP_intLanguageID=1&RP_bitLiveData=False.
“Households with Access to the Internet and Access to a Home Computer,” e-National Indicators, December 6, 2010, http://www.index.go.kr/egams/stts/jsp/potal/stts/PO_STTS_IdxMain.jspidx_cd=1345&bbs=INDX_001 (in Korean).
According to the latest OECD Key ICT Indicators, the figure nears 96 percent of the households when internet access through devices other than computers is also included. “Households with Access to the Internet in Selected OECD Countries,” OECD Key ICT Indicators, December 24, 2010, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/19/45/34083073.xls.
“Number of WiFi Hotspots in S. Korea Rises to World’s No. 3,” Yonhap News, November 7, 2010, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/techscience/2010/11/05/49/0601000000AEN20101105007300320F.HTML.
John D. Sutter, “Why Internet Connections Are Fastest in South Korea,” CNN Tech, March 31, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-03-31/tech/broadband.south.korea_1_broadband-plan-south-korea-broadbandinternet_s=PM:TECH.
J. C. Herz, “The Bandwidth Capital of the World,” Wired (August 2002), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.08/korea.htmlpg=1&topic=&topic_set.
Sutter, “Why Internet Connections Are Fastest in South Korea.” SOUTH KOREA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net phone penetration, as of December 2010, there were 50.8 million subscriptions, exceeding the total population of 48.9 million.9 More than 56 percent of these users have been accessing the internet from their mobile phones.10 Smartphone ownership has grown exponentially, reaching the world’s highest average traffic per user on smartphones at MB/month, 2 to 3 times higher than the global average.There is no significant gap in access to ICTs with respect to gender or income level,although differences in computer literacy across generational and professional lines persist.In addition to the high household subscription rates, the absence of a large digital divide is attributable to the omnipresence of cybercafes, known as PC bangs (PC rooms) in Korean.
The facilities offer broadband access at a price of approximately US$1 per hour, and also serve as venues for social interaction, particularly among youth, who frequent the cafes to play online video games.Despite such widespread connectivity, some obstacles to access remain. For example, foreign residents have difficulty accessing many online services, both governmental and commercial.15 This is partly due to language barriers, but a more important factor is the real-name registration system adopted in 2004 under an amendment to the Public Official Election Act.16 Users are required to verify their identities by submitting their Resident Registration Numbers (RRNs) when they wish to join and contribute to web portals and other major sites. As RRNs are assigned only to Korean citizens at birth, foreign nationals must individually contact webmasters to confirm their identities.
In 2007, the internet real-name registration system was expanded to apply to any website with more than 100,000 visitors per day.17 This included the video-sharing website YouTube, but the site’s U.S.-based parent company, Google, refused to ask its Korean customers for their RRNs. Instead, it has blocked users from uploading content onto YouTube Korea. Users are able to bypass the restriction by changing their location setting to Korea Communications Commission, “Wired/Wireless Subscriptions December 2010,” Resources: Statistical Data, January 25, 2011, http://www.kcc.go.kr/user.domode=view&page=P02060400&dc=K02060400&boardId=1030&cp=1&boardSeq=(in Korean).
Korea Internet and Security Agency, 2010 Survey on Wireless Internet Usage (Seoul: KISA, December 2010), http://isis.kisa.or.kr/board/index.jsppageId=040100&bbsId=7&itemId=773&pageIndex=1 (in Korean).
“Smartphones Account for Almost 65% of Mobile Traffic Worldwide,” Informa Telecoms & Media, November 2, 2010, http://www.informatm.com/itmgcontent/icoms/s/press-releases/20017822478.html.
Korea Internet and Security Agency, 2010 Survey on Internet Usage (Seoul: KISA, December 2010), http://isis.kisa.or.kr/board/index.jsppageId=040100&bbsId=7&itemId=771&pageIndex=1 (in Korean).
G. W. Shin, J. H. Goh, et al., 2009 Digital Divide Index (Seoul: National Information Society Agency, 2010), http://www.nia.or.kr/Extra/Module/Common/Lib/Attach/DownLoad.aspxSeq=18459 (in Korean).
Herz, “The Bandwidth Capital of the World”; Jun-Sok Huhh, “Culture and Business of PC Bangs in Korea,” Games and Culture 3, no. 1 (2008): 26–37.
Korea Internet and Security Agency, 2010 Survey on the Internet Usage of Foreign Residents in Korea (Seoul: KISA, December 2010), http://isis.kisa.or.kr/board/index.jsppageId=040100&bbsId=7&itemId=770&pageIndex=1 (in Korean).
The amendment became Article 82, Provision 6 of the act.
The expansion was a result of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Data Protection.
SOUTH KOREA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net “worldwide.” Even the Korean presidential office maintains its YouTube channel in this way.18 Other popular applications such as the social networking site Facebook and the microblogging service Twitter are freely available, and these international sites are currently exempt from the identity verification requirement. Although subject to the real-name registration system, locally based social networking sites like Cyworld and web portals like Naver and Daum are also popular among Korean users.
The telecommunications sector in South Korea is relatively diverse and open to competition, with 127 internet service providers (ISPs) operating as of December 2010.19Nevertheless, the market remains dominated by three companies: Korea Telecom (43.1 percent), SK Telecom (20.9 percent), and LG Telecom (16.1 percent).20 The same firms share the country’s mobile-phone service market, with 31.6 percent, 50.6 percent, and 17.8 percent, respectively.21 All three are publicly traded companies (Korea Telecom was state-owned until privatization in 2002), but they are part of the country’s chaebol— large, family-controlled conglomerates—which are in turn closely connected by marriage ties to the political elite.22 This has given rise to speculation that favoritism was at play in the privatization process and in the selection of bidders for mobile-phone licenses.
One of the first priorities of the conservative government that took office in February 2008 was to restructure key regulatory institutions dealing with ICTs. The Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) and the Korean Broadcasting Commission (KBC) were merged to create the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), tasked with overseeing both telecommunications and television broadcasting with more coherence than the previous arrangement.23 The KCC consists of five commissioners, with the president appointing two (including the chairman) and the National Assembly choosing the remainder.
Given that the first chairman is reputed to be the president’s “political mentor,”24 some observers have viewed the restructuring as an effort by the administration to establish tighter control over regulation of the ICT industry.
President Lee Myung-bak’s channel is located at http://www.youtube.com/user/PresidentMBLee.
Korea Internet and Security Agency, “Infrastructure Statistics: ISPs,” Internet Statistics Information System, 2010, http://isis.kisa.or.kr/sub01/pageId=010302 (in Korean).
Korea Communications Commission, “Broadband Subscriptions September–December 2010,” Resources: Statistical Data, February 16, 2011, http://www.kcc.go.kr/user.domode=view&page=P02060400&dc=K02060400&boardId=1030&cp=1&boardSeq=(in Korean).
Korea Communications Commission, “Wired/Wireless Subscriptions December 2010.” G. M. Cho, Study on Marriage Chains Among Korean Media Owners (master’s dissertation, Sogang University, Seoul, 2005) (in Korean); “Internet and E-Commerce Industry in South Korea,” Ecommerce Journal, April 5, 2010, http://ecommercejournal.com/articles/27693_internet-and-e-commerce-industry-south-korea.
Jong Sung Hwang and Sang-hyun Park, “Republic of Korea,” in Digital Review of Asia Pacific 2009–2010 (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 234–240.
J. N. Kang, “Who’s Who Behind Lee Myung-bak: Choi See-joong the Chairman of the KCC (Appointed),” Shindonga (583, 2008), 48–49 (in Korean).
SOUTH KOREA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net LIMITS ON CONTENT As internet access has spread, online communications have become an increasingly integral part of South Korean society. Although the South Korean blogosphere is vibrant and creative, there are a number of restrictions on the free circulation of information, including content of public interest. Two types of censorship are particularly evident in South Korea: