Upload a Song, Lose Your Internet Connection
New Copyright Law Causes Uproar Among Bloggers, Internet Companies
By Kim Tong-hyung
South Korea touts itself as one of the most wired and technology savvy countries in the world. But the Lee Myung-bak government's increasing attempts to monitor the Internet have the blogosphere and Web industry reminded of the cold realities of the real world behind the screen.
The National Assembly passed the new anti-file sharing provision, suggested by the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), following a close vote April 1, despite protests from Internet companies and civil liberties advocates that it could threaten the freedom of expression on the Internet.
Lawmakers also passed another GNP-backed bill that calls for the strengthening of the real-name verification on Web sites, and such developments have critics questioning whether the unpopular Lee government is becoming overzealous in its efforts to avoid another beef crisis.
According to the bulked-up copyright law, the government has the power to shutdown an online message board for a maximum six months after the site is warned for a third time to delete pirated content and prevent its movement.
In addition to the ``three-strikes'' rule, Internet users who repeatedly upload copyrighted content without permission could lose their Internet accounts.
Supporters of the law, including the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, claim that stronger measures are needed to cope with the country's online piracy problems.
However, Internet companies, bracing for increasing regulatory risks, are concerned about the government having arbitrary power that could be used to shake their business at its roots.
According to the new law, the minister of culture, sports and tourism is granted the authority to order the closing of online message boards or suspending individual Internet accounts with or without requests from copyright holders.
``Even for a big company like Naver (www.naver.com), it is virtually impossible for Web portals to totally filter illegal content when there are millions of postings coming up everyday. And I am talking about companies that spend massive amounts of money to monitor copyright violations and hire hundreds of monitoring personnel,'' said an employee from one of the country's largest Internet companies who didn't want to be named.
``I mean, how much does the government expect us to spend in developing and operating a simple Web service? No matter how hard we try, the culture minister will easily find his three strikes and could order us to shutdown a site at anytime, regardless of whether the copyright holder has a problem with us or not.
``So, if somebody uploads a music file on a FTP (file transition protocol) site and links it to Knowledge Search, will Naver be forced to shutdown its most popular Web service? This is insane, unless the government is trying to give us new ideas about how to hurt competitors' business,'' he said.
Defining copyrighted content is also a problem, as the concept not only includes movies, television shows and music, but also the articles of media organizations and even individual blog postings.
This has bloggers concerned, but KCC officials deny the claims that the new copyright law will affect their freedom of expression, pointing out that the provisions are to be imposed only to online message boards with ``commercial'' intentions.
However, the boundaries are still blurry, since an increasing number of bloggers are going professional to create revenue from their sites, or at least attaching advertisements from Google AdSense and other advertisement services for some pocket change. This means that individual blogs could be subject to the copyright law, as the message boards operated by Internet companies are.
``The law could have the government shutting down not only major Web portals, but online message boards of smaller companies and even `meta sites' that compile blog posts. And the member blogs of the meta sites could be interpreted as online message boards, too,'' said Sogumi, a popular blogger whose writings appear on Tatter Media (tattermedia.com).
``The law draws a dreadful picture of the future, as Internet users will be required to submit their real names to post on individual blogs and not even imagine using the online message boards of Web portals or meta sites due to the worries of having his or her Internet cut off.''
Repeatedly kicked in the teeth by bloggers, first for the controversial decision to resume U.S. beef imports and then for ineptitude in economic policies, beleaguered government officials have since been attempting to impose rules on Internet users.
As a result, Korea has now become one of the first democracies to aggressively use the law to hold Internet users and Web sites to account, and the revised copyright law represents the boldest step yet in this direction.
Critics question whether the new copyright law could eventually be used to suppress certain sites, such as Agora, a discussion board operated by Daum (www.daum.net), which was a seedbed for anti-government criticism during the controversy over the beef issue.