April 17, 2009
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The South Korean government is considering legal action against Google following the refusal of Google-owned Web site YouTube to implement the “real name system,” which requires any Web site that has more than 100,000 users per day to confirm users’ personal information such as their real names and resident registration numbers when they want to post comments or upload content.
The situation is showing signs of developing into a clash between the South Korean government, which is seeking to extend the application of its internet regulations to all Internet businesses, and the world’s largest Internet company, which is trying to maintain its principle of “freedom of expression” based on the option of exercising the “freedom of anonymous expression” on the Internet that it maintains elsewhere throughout the world.
An official at the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), who wished to remain nameless, said Thursday that the KCC was “in an uproar” over Google’s April 9 decision. “The people higher up said that they could not just leave Google alone and told us to find something to punish them with, so the related team is researching possible illegalities,” the official said.
On April 9, Google announced that it would be blocking users with South Korean nationality from uploading content and posting comments on YouTube Korea’s Web site, effectively rejecting the implementation of the real name system. Initially, the KCC reacted tepidly, calling the case “not something to take administrative measures over,” but in just a few days, it has taken a 180-degree turn. According to sources, the KCC has apparently made the determination that Google’s decisions have represented an evasion of regulations and that it is not a situation that they can leave alone as a regulatory authority.
KCC network policy official Hwang Cheol-jeung says that the commission will be examining whether or not Google has engaged in illegal activities in any of the various services it operates in South Korea. Since Google’s Korea Unit is conducting many activities in South Korea besides operating the YouTube Korea video site, including search and keyword-based advertising, observers are concerned that this investigation could potentially turn up illegal practices in areas such as internet obscenity, unwholesome advertising, and copyright infringements.
Choi See-joong, chairman of KCC, expressed strong dissatisfaction with Google at a Wednesday meeting of the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Sports, Tourism, Broadcasting & Communications (CCSTB&C). At the CCSTB&C meeting, Grand National Party lawmaker Na Kyung-won said that with Google’s measure, “They are speaking as though Korea is a backwards Internet nation that is intensifying its Internet censorship. Why are you just standing around doing nothing?” Choi responded that plans were underway to “send a message of severe dismay to Google about their terribly commercial approach with which it has tried to deceive people by a transparent guile.” He also said that he planned to meet with the head of Google Korea to determine the company’s true motives, and that the KCC was currently conducting legality investigations.
Meanwhile, Google Korea Unit head Lee Won-jin appeared on the MBC show “Son Seok-hee’s Focused View” Thursday and said, “There are no ‘true motives’ behind the shutdown of upload functions. What you see is everything.” Lee added that it was “a difficult decision, made after extensive discussions with the head office, and with a long-term view on the significance of the South Korean market.” Analysts are interpreting that this means the decision came from Google’s headquarters, and as such is not liable to be influenced by the South Korean government’s will. Lee also said, “In refusing to accept this regulation, we support opportunities for freedom of expression in South Korea’s Internet culture.”
South Korean companies are concerned about issues of “reverse discrimination” in Internet regulations. “When I saw Google’s decision, I was jealous and at the same time deeply distressed,” said an official at one portal site. “South Korean businesses will have to endure criticism from users while following unwanted regulations,” the official added.
Han Chang-min, Korea Internet Corporations Association secretary-general, expressed the frustration experienced by several Internet companies, “The fair thing to do would be to apply the real name system to all foreign sites accessible to users in South Korea, or else remove the regulation for South Korean businesses.”
Industry experts suggest that the differences between the South Korean government and Google over how to apply the new Internet regulations reveals the fallacy of creating regulation that applies to only specific geographical regions on the Internet, which is a “network of networks.” According to the government, the difficulty it faces is that it is impossible to regulate Internet policy if it leaves cases like Google’s alone. Jeon Byeong-guk, director of the Internet consulting company SearchMaster.co.kr, says that the government and Google “have come face-to-face in a situation where there are no points of agreement.” Jeon added, “Since Google does not have a large share of the South Korean market, the question is what is to be gained from the government simply cracking its whip.”
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