Korean Internet portals fear the increasing government regulations could drive Internet users to foreign services, such as Google¡¯s Gmail e-mail services. / Korea Times
By Kim Tong-hyung
Choi, a 33-year-old office worker in Seoul, recently closed his blog on Egloos (www.egloos.com) and created a new online journal using Blogger (www.blogger.com), Google's online blog publishing service.
He already hates his new cyber home.
``I like simplicity, but I also think that the Google blogs are too dull, and they certainly don't have a prayer for competing with Naver (www.naver.com) blogs and even Egloos blogs in design, color and other neat features,'' said Choi.
``And the functions aren't too great either. Blogger blogs don't even support track-backs, and I was forced to use other programs like Halo Scan (www.haloscan.com) despite the poor Korean language support and shakiness.''
But despite the frustrations over his new blog, which he describes as looking ``amputated,'' Choi intends to be patient rather than relocate to smoother Korean services.
Besides, aesthetics had nothing to do with his decision to switch to Blogger in the first place.
With the government considering more ways to monitor the Internet, limiting anonymity and introducing new laws that promise stronger surveillance and easier censorship, Choi is one of many South Korean Internet users who feel more comfortable on foreign Internet sites.
Not that Choi thinks that any of his writings are likely to cause an uproar such as those of Park Dae-sung, widely known as ``Minerva'' and a frequent critic of government policies, who law enforcement authorities are attempting to prosecute on charges of spreading falsified rumors about the country's financial policies.
But for any literate computer user, from famous bloggers like Park to lesser-knowns such as Choi, the last thing they want is a government eyeball-staring them on the back of their heads.
``Korean Internet companies already abuse their power in deciding what should be published and what should not, deleting text, photos and other content according to their vague and arbitrary rules, but not caring enough to send you back-up CDs. Now, the strengthened government rules will give them an excuse to swing the hammer even more,'' Choi said.
``Foreign Internet services are now a clear attraction. A number of my friends are also switching their e-mail services to Gmail and Hotmail, which they find as flaky but convenient.''
Benefiting from living in a country with one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the planet, Koreans have enjoyed a sophisticated level of Web services resulting from the intense competition in the Internet industry.
Korea boasts an impressive track record in product debuts, which include online video games, Facebook-type social networking services ¡ª pioneered by Cyworld (www.cyworld.com) ¡ª and question-and-answer search engines, first introduced by Naver and now globally conventional through Google Answers and other similar services.
However, Korean Internet companies are now concerned that the country's vibrant Internet culture, which provided the soil for such innovations, might lose some of its edge as the government considers a closer watch on Web-browsing habits.
They can only hope that Internet users like Park, who are choosing to migrate to foreign services in search of safe havens, don't represent the first of many.
Some tech-savvy Internet users are even establishing their own sites on foreign servers to avoid government censorship, a skill previously perfected by porn site operators. One, Exile Korea (www.exilekorea.net), now gets hundreds of thousands of daily visitors.
``The self-proclaimed asylum-seekers represent just a small number of total Internet users, and are not enough in number to cause an immediate effect in business,'' said an official from Daum (www.daum.net), the country's second largest Web portal and search engine.
``That said, the increasing government regulations can't help Korean Web portals if Internet users feel they're on a short leash. Korea is one of the few countries where local companies introduced enough quality services to stay ahead of global Internet giants in the market, but now it seems we may be losing some of our competitive edge.''
Since battered by Web protests, first for the controversial decision to resume U.S. beef imports and more recently for its supposed ineptitude in economic policies, the Lee Myung-bak government had been attempting to impose rules on Internet users.
However, with the new rules apparently having different effects on Korean and foreign Internet companies, the domestic firms are complaining of being the only ones in the doghouse.
Since April 1, the government mandated Internet users to make verifiable real-name registrations on all Web sites with more than 100,000 daily visitors, which means they have to submit their resident registration codes, the Korean equivalent of social security numbers.
However, Google avoided the requirements by disabling users from uploading videos and comments on the Korean language site of YouTube (kr.youtube.com), its online video service.
Since the changes are only effective on YouTube's Korean site, local users can still post files and comments by changing their country preference to other countries. To put it bluntly, Google proved that Korea's strict real-name system could be beat by the simple skill of double clicking.
Complying with the real-name rules would have been an enormous risk for Google, as the government could later demand user information from the company, not a precedent it wants to show to other countries.
``In any country, Google intends to respect the local law and do business within its boundaries. However, since the Internet renders geography irrelevant, it's sometimes difficult to define how far the law of a certain country should extend,'' said Lee Won-jin, managing director of Google Korea, in a recent news conference.
However, according to the Korea Communication Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, YouTube remains the only site that avoided the real-name registrations.
``Of the 153 Internet sites with more than 100,000 daily visitors, 152 of them, except for YouTube, are imposing the new real-name system,'' said an official from the KCC's network policy bureau.
``Not only Korean sites, but also Internet sites operated by Microsoft and Yahoo are showing respect for the motive of our law,'' he said.
Low Privacy Standards
The real-name requirement on Web sites is only one of the new laws that have the Internet industry stirring.
Earlier this month, the National Assembly passed an anti-file sharing provision that allows regulators to shutdown Web sites after a third warning over copyright infringement and also cut off Internet users accused of illegally sharing copyrighted files with or without the complaints of copyright holders.
Because of another bill pushed by the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), law enforcement authorities have expanded surveillance power to intercept mobile phone and Internet communications, including e-mail, chatting and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls.
Armed with arrest warrants, police and prosecution caused controversy by inspecting the e-mail records of millions, provided by sites such as Daum and Naver, to investigate the anti-government protests last year.
However, Google's Gmail was one of the rare e-mail services left unscathed. Since Gmail is operated by U.S.-based servers, authorities had no choice when the company chose not to cooperate with the investigation.
``Once implemented, the series of Internet regulations pushed by the GNP will eventually hurt the profit of Korean Internet companies by driving Web users to foreign Internet services for searches and e-mail,'' said Choi Moon-soon, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party.
Although Korean Internet companies complain about increasing regulatory risk, critics point out that they'd been showing little interest in protecting the personal information of Internet users.
Telecommunications law requires real-name registration only on ``message boards,'' defined as services that allow Internet users to upload text, videos and other information intended to be shared with the general public, meaning companies don't have to force users to submit their resident registration codes for providing e-mail, personal blogs and member-only Web communities, as they do now.
Critics say Korean companies should introduce separate subscription systems for different services, as the excessive filing of personal information had been resulting in a slew of security blunders and marketing fraud in recent years.
``Under the law, e-mail, blogs and Web cafes are not mandated for real-time registration, but Korean portals have been gathering resident registrations codes anyway,'' said Jeong Eung-hwi, an official from the Green Consumer Network.