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[Ram Garikipati] Restrictive Internet platform in Korea

The Korean government has finally announced its plans to start removing the troublesome ActiveX software from public websites later this month in order to create a more user-friendly Internet environment.

For long, this tech-savvy country has been stuck in a time warp with its slavish dependence on Internet Explorer.

ActiveX controls were one of the many troublesome regulations that President Park Geun-hye vowed to remove in her signature deregulation initiative, and it is good to notice that the government is moving fast.

It is a software framework that defines reusable software components in programming language and has become an integral part of the country’s Internet landscape.

Because it is a nonstandard software, it sometimes has trouble interacting with different browsers and is not really appropriate for mobile platforms. In particular, the system requires users to submit authentication certificates issued by local authorities, making it impossible for people to buy products or make financial transactions online without using Internet Explorer with the ActiveX plugin. In addition, websites of government bodies also use this technology for Internet security.

The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs announced on March 3 that it would draw up a set of guidelines to remove ActiveX controls from public websites and implement it later this month.

The government has been seeking to help develop alternative technologies to replace the ActiveX controls, the home ministry said, adding that private sector website operators would also join the move to get rid of them in cooperation with other ministries.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning is currently in charge of similar efforts vis-a-vis the private sector. The ministry is also planning to complete its private-sector ActiveX removal efforts by the end of this month.

However, one should not get our hopes too high. Back in 2009, the government and the Korea Communications Commission announced these very same objectives and even set up a task force. They grandly stated that they would make it mandatory for online shopping malls and financial institutions to provide subscribers with an alternative to ActiveX.

It was loudly cheered at that time, but then slowly forgotten, and the policy gathered dust. The same issue is now being revisited and it is hoped the authorities walk the talk.

To provide a little context to this situation, the Korean government was among the first to encourage shopping and banking online, but many people were concerned about Internet safety. The goal was to make Internet shopping very secure, so the government created its own system to authenticate the identities of online buyers. To make purchases, shoppers had to supply their names and registration numbers and apply for government-issued “digital certificates,” which they could present to sellers as proof of ID. This required the additional plug-in ActiveX ― which worked in tandem only with Internet Explorer, the browser that reigned supreme at that time.

Times changed and technology advanced, but the authorities continued with this piece of regulation. As a result, in Korea, when using Web browsers such as Chrome Firefox or Safari, online shopping often begins with a warning that the ActiveX plugin is required.

Those who use Apple computers or have installed Linux variants ― which cannot run Internet Explorer ― are virtually banned from doing any online financial transactions.

They have to either partition their computers and install Windows on one side, or rely on their office desktops, PC rooms and helpful neighbors.

It is really vexing, and I should know, having been a victim of this digital discrimination myself. I replaced my desktop with iMac way back in 2008. While I refuse to have anything to do with Internet Explorer, and also replaced Windows with Ubuntu on my laptop, I had to reluctantly install Windows on a partition of my Korean wife’s iMac, since she has to do most of the shopping and bank work online.

The funny thing is that Microsoft now supports ActiveX in Internet Explorer only as a legacy technology and actively discourages the use of the protocol. In fact, in a security advisory put out by the company a few years ago, the company actively discouraged the use of ActiveX.

It said: “Unfortunately, ActiveX controls are like any other software program ― they can be misused. They can stop your computer from functioning correctly, collect your browsing habits and personal information without your knowledge, or can give you content, like pop-up ads that you don’t want. Also, ‘good’ ActiveX controls might contain unintended code that allows ‘bad’ websites to use them for malicious purposes … . Here’s a good rule to follow: If an ActiveX control is not essential to your computer activity, avoid installing it.”

However, the Korean authorities appear to have ignored the warnings. So it is about time they are straightening things out. This will not only ease the hassles for customers but also grow the e-commerce business.

Last year, the Federation of Korean Industries carried out a survey on this issue and found that Koreans overwhelmingly approve the scrapping of the ActiveX framework, citing it as a hindrance.

According to a survey by the lobbying group for the country’s large conglomerates on 700 people nationwide, 78.6 percent of respondents said they wanted ActiveX software to be discontinued and replaced by a more up-to-date support system that is not so restrictive.

Going into details, the federation said 79.1 percent complained the framework made it a hassle to purchase products online, with 71.7 percent saying it affected bank transactions.

“This is the reason why despite Korea’s advanced information technology infrastructure, the proportion of its online shopping sector compared to its GDP, is much smaller than the United States, Japan and China,” the federation claimed.

For that matter, retail e-commerce sales in the country are expected to reach $36.76 billion in 2015, according to the latest eMarketer estimates of e-commerce and total retail spending around the world. Those figures give South Korea the third-largest retail e-commerce market in the Asia-Pacific, after China and Japan.

There is no doubt that if ActiveX is scrapped, it will breathe new life into the domestic online market place that could attract more buyers at home and abroad. It will go a long way in boosting the e-commerce market in the country, making it a growth engine.

By Ram Garikipati 

Ram Garikipati is a business writer at The Korea Herald. He can be reached at ― Ed.