Internet powerhouse, Korea? Shame on its internet policies!

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By Jinbonet for Jinbonet

SEOUL, South Korea, 16 June 2008

The OECD ministerial meeting on “the Future of the Internet Economy” is being held in Seoul, Korea from June 17th to 18th. The Korean government seems to use this meeting as an opportunity to show off its advances of the Internet technology and promote “IT Korea global sales” by hosting the World IT Show and other similar events. However, no one would call a nation a ‘leading country of the Internet’ solely on its strong information technology base and IT industries. We hope this meeting would be a chance for the Korean government to recognize and feel embarrassed for its information and communication policies, including Internet policies, which violate many human-rights and is lagging behind.

Just a few months ago, an Internet auction site was hacked causing personal information of more than ten million people to be exposed, and one of the major ISPs, Hanaro-Telecom, intentionally abused its more than six million clients’ personal information (the number of leaked records were more than eighty five millions). If public authority did their jobs in monitoring and overseeing these companies’ behaviors in collecting and using personal information, damages from such instances could have been minimized. NGOs in Korea has argued for establishing an independent ‘privacy supervisory authority’ to oversee such activities for many years. But the government’s lack of will and the National Assembly’s negligence cast a long shadow on the prospect of establishing such an authority to oversee privacy in the so-called ‘Internet powerhouse’.

Among the personal information leaked in these instances, the exposure of the national identification numbers poses tremendous problems. The national identification number is issued to every Korean at birth. It is a unique number which includes sensitive information such as date of birth and sex, and can never be changed. The Korean government allowed private entities to collect such sensitive information without proper regulations, and abandoned its responsibility by not providing effective corrective measures even though massive numbers of national identification numbers have been traded and used for fraudulent IDs.

To minimize the damage of victims, Activists of Korean Progressive Network, Jinbonet, requested the Ministry of Public Administration and Security (MOPAS) to reassign their national identification numbers. However, MOPAS denied that request saying it is impossible. If the Korean government is so proud of its national identification number
system, it should promote the use of such national identification numbering systems in other countries. Further, the Korean government, self proclaimed ‘Internet powerhouse’, might want to boast about its fingerprinting of all citizens.

The Korean government plans to embed fingerprints in biometric passports (or electronic passports) that are due to be deployed in 2008. Also the national identification numbers will be embedded in the passports. Although such information are not required by any international agreement or country, the government plans to embed them. Moreover, the government denies citizens the right of selecting the type of passports. Only biometric passports are issued with no option for paper passports. Such specific implementation of electronic passports in Korea obviously violates the right to self-determination of one’s personal information. Electronic Travel Authorization(ETA), passenger information exchange agreement, and biometric passports are under implementation by Korean government to be eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program(VWP). Due to such measures, some sensitive
personal information such as criminal records can be easily transferred across the national borders. We share the concerns with other countries’ NGOs and international NGOs that such transfer of personal information across borders will seriously threaten the right to self-determination of one’s personal information.

National identification number and fingerprinting are typical measures used for keeping citizens under government control. In addition to this, the government is trying to revise the ‘Protection of Communications Privacy Act’ that seek to legally enforce telecommunications companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) to retain ‘communications data’ for at least three months to one year and would require mobile phone service providers to redesign their networks to permit wiretapping. The aim of the revision is to provide communication records when an investigation agency needs it. As the National Human Rights Commission of Korea already pointed out, the act will be harmful to the freedom of communication and privacy of the Korean people.

One of the most notorious ICT policies is the ‘Internet real name policy’, which is a policy that obligates every user of major Internet portal sites and government sites to confirming his/her real identity. As the Civil Society background paper of the OECD meeting points out, ‘anonymity’ should be protected and minimal personal information necessary for a specific service should be allowed to be collected. But Internet real name policy has been implemented not for the necessity of services but for the government interests in suppressing citizens’ expression of their opinion and making criminal investigations easier. Absurdly, Internet users in Korea have to confirm his/her real identity even for posting an article on any major Korean portal sites, while they can subscribe to services and use electronic transactions provided from other countries such as Google, YouTube, Amazon etc without confirming his/her real identity. We wonder if the government can be proud of its Internet real name policy.

In addition to the Internet real name policy, government has other measures that can be used to suppress the freedom of expression on the Internet. An administrative body of the government (Korea Communication Commission, which hosts the OECD meeting) can order deletion of expressions (articles, video files and so on) on the Internet which it decides is illegal without any judicial process. Moreover, the government tends to regulate critical expression toward the government on the Internet through various ways. Recently, as
concerns and criticism over beef import negotiations between Korea and U.S. spread among citizens through the Internet, the Korean government stipulated the Internet as the origin of ‘negative public opinion against the government’. A government official called an Internet
portal site hosting one of the on-line communities to pressure them. Furthermore, the Korean Communications Standards Commission, a deliberation authority, issued a recommendation that recommends ‘purifying its languages and restraining exaggerated expressions’ to an on-line community that is critical about the government.

One of the slogans of the conference is ‘confidence’. However, information and communication policies in Korea has been pursuing ‘control’ instead of ‘confidence’. We hope the OECD meeting to be an opportunity for Korean government to reflect on its policies and the government to listen to the voice of civil societies that have long been ignored.

June 16, 2008
Korean Progressive Network, Jinbonet


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