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[Editorial] Shutdown law shuttered

Korea moves to abolish controversial anti-game rule, but tasks remain unresolved

South Korea finally moved to scrap the decade-old rule blocking minors from playing PC-based online games past midnight, a belated yet welcome move considering that the dispute-laden regulation has long been outdated and ineffective.

The National Assembly on Thursday held a plenary session and voted in favor of a revision to the Youth Protection Act, abolishing what is called the “shutdown law” banning online PC game access for youngsters under 16 between midnight and 6 a.m.

The controversial shutdown law, enacted in 2011, was touted by proponents -- a group of anti-gaming parents and government officials -- as an effective way to protect underage children from getting addicted to harmful gaming and to ensure a minimum amount of sleep time.

As with other controversial regulations, the very foundation for introducing the shutdown law was, at best, shaky. There was little, if any, scientific evidence that restricting access to online PC games past midnight for six hours could successfully prevent gaming addiction.

In addition, the reason Korean students tend to be sleep-deprived is that, even from their elementary school days, they are often forced to study until late at night either at cram schools or at home under the strict supervision of their parents, amid fierce nationwide competition to gain admission into prestigious universities.

In 2014, a group of minors and their parents filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, raising a question about the legal grounds of the shutdown law. The court ruled that the shutdown law could not be viewed as “excessive regulation” given the high ratio of Korean youths playing online games and the addictive nature of such games. The Constitutional Court also cited the importance of protecting youth’s health and preventing online game addiction in its ruling.

Those who wanted to keep the shutdown law praised the court’s ruling, but critics, especially from the baffled gaming industry, argued that it was a representative case of excessive regulation, and parents, not the government, should have the right to guide children about when and how they engage in entertainment activities.

In recent years, even state agencies such as the Korea Creative Content Agency have put out a handful of reports showing that the duration of gaming by young people has no causal relations with their sleep time.

Experts also pointed out that regulating PC-based gaming is out of sync with the current mobile-centered trend. Now, it is common to see every family member, including children, carrying around their own smartphone, through which they watch streaming video, listen to music and play mobile games. Today’s tech-savvy youths can enjoy diverse digital entertainment such as webtoons and online novels without any state-imposed time restrictions and indulge in social media like Instagram for hours -- unless their parents step in.

Yet the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, in charge of the shutdown law, continued to claim without concrete and convincing evidence that the rule targeting PC gamers helped prevent gaming addiction and made sure youths get at least six hours of sleep.

The government’s position began to take a dramatic turnaround in August only after popular online game Minecraft touched off a wave of criticism about the shutdown law a month earlier. The Korean government required both local and foreign game developers to implement the shutdown system, but Microsoft, which runs Minecraft, simply changed the game’s rating so that only adults could play the game, instead of setting up a Korea-only edition with the shutdown feature.

Only after the case of a de facto “R-rated” Minecraft invited ridicule and criticism both at home and abroad did local lawmakers and policymakers set about rethinking the necessity of the regulation in earnest.

The shutdown law, the latest symbol of the state’s busybody policy invading into individual life, has been shuttered, but potentially explosive problems remain unresolved, such as navigating through side effects of digital content and services.

More in-depth and evidence-based public discussions are needed to set up proper policies and provide practical help to youths suffering from addiction problems involving not only gaming, but also a growing list of digital entertainment and social media.

Instead of habitually setting up half-baked regulatory hurdles, the government should carefully review and repeal ineffective rules like the shutdown law in a wide range of sectors. The Constitutional Court is also required to ponder the true meaning of excessive regulation in the digital era.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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