South Korea has laid out a new plan that could further undermine the freedom of expression and violate the privacy of online users in the country.
On March 7, the Korea Communications Commission announced a series of plans for 2019, which included the introduction of a new law giving the South Korean government authority to shut down domestic operations of foreign internet-related companies that hold personal information of South Korean users, such as Google and Facebook.
Currently, such foreign companies are not subject to domestic regulations regarding violations of user privacy or misuse of user information. Local firms had complained that this created a double standard that advantaged foreign companies.
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However, the new law, once it’s passed, will make it mandatory for foreign firms to have a domestic partner in South Korea and operate through it, which will bring them within the South Korean government’s reach. Companies will thus be required to follow South Korea’s rules for data use and user privacy, and repeated violations could lead to a shutdown.
Although the commission said its move is aimed to form a fair playing field for both domestic and foreign companies while protecting South Korean users’ interests, the change would also consolidate the government’s ongoing efforts to tighten control over the country’s cyberspace.
One latest example is its decision to block “obscene” and “harmful” websites that are served over HTTPS on top of the current blocks on websites served over HTTP. The newly banned sites include websites offering gambling and pornography as well as propaganda outlets managed by North Korea.
The controversial part is that the government plan includes eavesdropping on SNI fields, which identify the hostname of the target server. This allows service providers to see which HTTPS sites users are trying to access, so these can be blocked if they’re on the blacklist.
That decision faced criticism from public and industry players who believe that it is unfair for the government to decide what online users can and cannot watch. There are also concerns that the “eavesdropping” could violate users’ privacy.
Sohn Ji-won, a lawyer at Seoul-based civic group Open Net, is among the critics. Sohn said the government’s move means more authority to control internet services providers as well as online users. She said she is concerned that the government would decide on a list of websites to block according to its own subjective tastes.
After the government’s decision was announced, more than 260,000 online users flocked to South Korea’s official online petition channel to oppose it, raising concerns over the privacy breach.
Such concerns are not groundless. In the first half of last year alone, for instance, 3.5 million pieces of data related to communication history were provided by telecommunication companies to prosecutors, police, and the National Intelligence Service. The data include user names, identification numbers, and the context of phone calls and text messages.
The Diplomat pointed out in October last year that the South Korean government’s efforts to fight fake news had the potential for abuse. The government failed to set up a concrete definition of what constitutes false, fabricated, and fake information or news as it moved to crack down the circulation of such information. Thus its actions sparked public concerns about violations of freedom of speech and excessively restricted freedom of expression.
The case is similar this time. The government’s latest crackdown lacks concrete guidelines; there is no clear definition of what is “obscene” and “harmful” when deciding which websites to block.
Amid growing criticism, the chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, Lee Hyo-sung, made a public announcement to dismiss suspicions and allegations that the government’s recent moves are designed to tighten control of the cyberspace.
Lee stressed that the government’s role would only be to make a list of banned websites and pass it to internet services providers.
He also said that the government is aware of “concerns” and “problems,” so it will gather experts’ opinion to improve policies.
Still, there are unanswered questions about whether the government will issue concrete details or guidelines, the possibility of a privacy breach, what impact the new moves would have on South Korea’s online users. The plan to regulate foreign internet firms remains similarly vague at the moment.