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[Editorial] Murky future of internet

Korea lags behind other advanced countries in ensuring privacy, freedom of speech online

South Korea is well known for its advanced internet infrastructure that allows for fast and reliable broadband-based services, a blessing for online users. In contrast, its internet regulations are neither sophisticated nor trustworthy, a curse stubbornly maintained by the government and policymakers.

A striking case in point is the country’s absence from the list of around 60 signatories of the pledge called the Declaration for the Future of the Internet.

On Thursday, the United States and participating nations across the globe unveiled the pledge, which has three main aims. They are to reinforce democracy online, keep the internet affordable to all and ensure a free flow of information.

At the heart of the pledge of around 2,000 words is that the internet faces serious threats at this time, and efforts should be made to address deepening problems.

“Globally, we are witnessing a trend of rising digital authoritarianism where some states act to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news sites, interfere with elections, promote disinformation, and deny their citizens other human rights,” the US White House said in a statement.

As the pledge is designed to keep the internet open and accessible in a way that safeguards freedom of expression, it is apparently targeted at China, Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian regimes that routinely shut down access to online sites for political purposes.

The cause is good and timely. That is why the Group of Seven countries, European nations and many of South Korea’s allies have joined the pledge as signatories. Strangely, South Korea was not a signatory.

A local media outlet quoted a diplomatic source in Washington as saying that the South Korean government did not participate in the declaration because it was still reviewing its potential impact. Some critics argue that the Moon Jae-in administration did not sign the declaration because it was mindful of negative reactions from China, Russia and North Korea.

It is regrettable that South Korea did not officially join the pledge. Equally problematic is that South Korea has a long way to go before it considers signing the pledge, which is designed to ensure access to the open internet. The open internet would be a place where online platforms and digital tools are not manipulated to repress freedom of expression.

For all of its cutting-edge broadband technologies, South Korea is a backward nation in terms of freedom of expression on social media and online networks. A government-led agency filters out a number of sites it considers inappropriate. Under the government’s regulations, internet service providers have been using the so-called server name indication (SNI) blocking method since February 2019, even though such strict internet censorship is a cause for concern among those who prioritize online freedom and privacy.

The government’s filtering system is intended to block illegal sites -- mostly related to gambling, pornographic and pirated content. But it does not reveal the list of blocked sites, which makes it impossible to check whether any sites are unfairly shut out due to political reasons.

While illegal sites are clearly and precisely defined in European nations and Japan, it is anybody’s guess which sites could be blocked here. This obscure filtering and censorship system could be misused.

In South Korea, freedom of expression is facing a threat on another platform: local media. Last week, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea filed media-related revision bills in the name of reforming the media. But local newspapers and broadcasters, as well as media experts, claim the bills are intended to put crippling restrictions on journalists and strengthen the government’s grip on state-run broadcasters.

It is time for policymakers to weigh various factors before introducing the problem-laden media bills, and ponder what freedom of expression means in a nation whose online censorship outstrips its much-touted broadband networks.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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