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[News Focus] Facebook in dispute over Messenger app, network maintenance costs in Korea

Social networking giant Facebook continues to be mired in controversy in South Korea after clashes with local users, telecom companies as well as the government over the nature of some of its business activities in the country.

The US-based social networking company is set to face an investigation by the state-run Korea Communications Commission after a local consumer rights group claimed that Facebook violated the law by sending out fake notifications designed to lure users into downloading its Messenger app.

The move came as Korean users on online forums have been posting complaints about Facebook’s false notifications that encourage users who have not done so to download Messenger.

A Korean user opens the Facebook mobile app (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
A Korean user opens the Facebook mobile app (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
Facebook first notifies users that they have unread messages, but does not allow users to read them unless they download Messenger. Once the app is installed, users sometimes find that they had not received actual messages from other users as suggested, but mere notifications from Facebook displaying other users who are also using Messenger.

The Green Consumer Network argued that these false notifications violate Korea’s Telecommunications Business Act by deceiving users and hampering their freedom of choice.

The act prohibits business operators from taking actions that “undermine users’ interests, their freedom of choice and fair competition.”

Facebook Korea has responded with a statement that its use of notifications to encourage users to download Messenger did not restrict consumers’ choice.

“Facebook Messenger is a mobile app that can be freely installed and uninstalled by users. Not installing the app does not cause any restrictions on using the Facebook app or other smartphone functions,” the firm said.

Adding to its woes, Facebook Korea is involved in another controversy on an entirely different issue -- network maintenance costs. Last month, it clashed with a local telecom provider over sharing the costs that go into maintaining the quality and speed of Facebook’s data traffic-heavy services.

The issue, which has also sparked an investigation from the KCC, emerged in December when SK Broadband subscribers began experiencing a slowdown in their Facebook connections as well as its photo-sharing app Instagram.

According to SKB, there were initially two ways to connect to Facebook in Korea: via a direct connection to Facebook’s server in Hong Kong and via rerouting to a local cache server in Korea operated by local telecom provider KT.

The cache server is used to save online content locally in temporary storage, called a cache, and in turn improve the connection speed for accessing foreign internet services. Facebook currently pays KT to use its cache server.

SKB argued that Facebook deliberately cut off its link to KT’s faster cache server last December and has since been clashing over network maintenance issues.

KT is currently the only Korean telecom firm that has set up a cache server for Facebook. Others, such as SKB and LG Uplus, have been accessing Facebook’s content using KT’s network. SKB has argued that Facebook blocked SKB from KT’s cache server, diverting its users to the slower Hong Kong server.

To improve the slow connection, Facebook said it had suggested SKB create its own cache server, offering to pay for the server installation costs only. However, negotiations were halted after the telecom provider asked Facebook to pay for the costs of operating the server.

Facebook Korea asserted that it is a content provider and therefore is not mandated to pay for such costs which remain in the realm of network providers. SKB has argued otherwise.

The incident ignited a debate over net neutrality, a principle that internet service providers and governments should treat all the data on the internet equally without discriminating by user, content, website or platform.

It has become a particularly thorny issue in Korea, where foreign and local internet service providers are subject to differing regulations regarding network usage costs.

As the volume of Facebook’s data traffic continues to increase, mainly due to expanded video sharing, local telecom firms are arguing that Facebook must bear the costs, noting that major Korean firms like Naver and Kakao pay fees proportionate to the amount of data their users consume.

In addition, Facebook has consistently come under fire for its lax monitoring of the ads that appear on its platform, some of which are sexually inappropriate or misleading. Though Facebook removes problematic ads based on internal monitoring and user reports, some critics have asserted that the platform operator is not doing enough to address such issues as it prioritizes ad revenue.

The string of controversies around Facebook comes as the social networking site takes a bigger presence among both users and third-party businesses tied to the platform.

According to local app analytics firm WiseApp, the Facebook mobile app has the 10th-largest number of Android smartphone users in Korea. Facebook Messenger ranks 21st while Facebook’s photo-sharing app Instagram ranks 26th under the same criteria.

By Sohn Ji-young (
Korea Herald daum