Korea No Longer Internet Power
By Cho Jin-seo
Lee Soon-hyuck, a 30-year-old employee of Xerox in Seoul, has two e-mail accounts for personal use. While in Korea, he uses local Web mail service Naver. When overseas, he switches to Google's G-mail or sticks to his company's mailing system.
``When I'm in Hong Kong, it takes two to three minutes only to see the front page of Naver,'' he said. ``I wonder why it should take more time to access a Korean server from Hong Kong, than an American server across the Pacific Ocean.''
The government has long been boasted that the nation is the world's leader in information technologies, and has the largest subscription rate of high-speed Internet connection. But in reality, many Internet users and companies feel and fear that the country is becoming more isolated from the global Internet community because of a lack of global perspective among firms and users, and exclusive regulations from the government.
Because of the high-speed domestic Internet connection, Korean Internet users have become accustomed to see Web pages filled with heavy graphics, animations and banners, which make them appear painfully slower when accessed via international submarine cable networks. The use of fancy, but cumbersome add-on programs such as Active X is also rampant in Korean Web sites, whereas they are strongly discouraged outside of Korea.
The uniqueness of Korean Internet culture has helped local firms like Naver and Daum outperform global giants such as Google and Yahoo. (Naver has almost 80 percent of the search market, while Google and Yahoo have less than 5 percent each.) But at the same time, it is difficult for local Web services to expand overseas, and foreign services to adapt to Korean style.
Even the most successful service in Korea is susceptible to dismal failure in other countries. Last Friday, SK Communications announced it was closing the German version of Cyworld, a graphic-heavy social networking service, after only four months of operation.
Earlier in 2004, Daum Communications tried to make inroads into the United States by acquiring aging portal giant Lycos for $95.4 million but the site only made massive losses. Naver has also been preparing a Japanese-language search service for years, but the project has been being delayed several times with decreasing expectations.
As for the network infrastructure, too, South Korea is no longer the world's most wired nation as it had been until 2005. Denmark (31.9), the Netherlands (31.8) and Iceland (29.7) were ahead of Korea (29.1) in the number of broadband Internet subscribers per 100 inhabitants, according to an OECD report in 2006. Japan had the fastest average network speed of 93 megabits per second, more than twice Korea's 44 megabits per second.
The regulation issue is also hampering the creativity of Korean Web developers and making it hard for them to adopt fresh ideas from overseas. The government enforces major Web sites to verify the name and the resident registration code of their users to prevent libel on the Internet, while in other countries users only identify themselves with nicknames or e-mail addresses.
It also tries to block the trading of ``virtual'' items used in computer games and other services ― a major hurdle for foreign Web services such as ``Second Life'' ― and enforces banks and other financial institutions to use a special online certificate system that is issued by only a small number of agencies. But several hacking and leakage cases prove that it is far from safe.
It is companies and users that are the victims of such fussy regulations.
``We have to consider Korea's unique circumstances. We may have to alter the system in order to follow government regulations,'' said Song Kyo-seok, an Internet services platform manager of AhnLab, the leading company in the Web security sector.
The company has been developing a new online identification service known as ``Open ID.'' The service, which is already popular in the United States and Western Europe, enables people to log in to many Web sites with a single ID and password. But in Korea, the business model is not acceptable because it is not incorporated into the government's online identification policy.