September 6, 2011 | By rainey Reitman and Jillian York

In South Korea, the Only Thing Worse Than Online Censorship is Secret Online Censorship

EFF is sending an open letter to the Korean Communications Standards Commission condemning attempts to shut the public out of their work and urging them to embrace online freedom of expression.

In South Korea, even the censors are being censored. Professor K.S. Park, who sits on South Korea’s nine-member Internet content regulatory board, has found his own blog under threat of censorship when he used it as platform to speak out for transparency and free expression.

South Korea is one of few global democracies that has enacted substantial controls on online communications. Earlier, the country’s Telecommunications Business Act (1991), which states that ‘‘a person in use of telecommunications shall not make communications with contents that harm the public peace and order or social morals and good customs”, as well as the Information and Communication Ethics Committee (ICEC), formed in 1995, set the stage for government restrictions on a wide variety of online content. Furthermore, the country’s anti-communist National Security Law (NSL), enacted in 1948, justifies the censorship of websites related to North Korea or communism. These nebulous, overbroad laws can be interpreted not only to cover content deemed obscene, but also content that is political or historical in nature.

The Korean Constitutional Court struck down the Telecommunications Business Act provision for being too vague, warning about the risk of censorship associated with the ICEC regime.

Korean Communications Standards Commission

  • 9 members appointed by the president
  • 3 year terms
  • 6 members from the majority party, 3 members from the opposition party
  • Censors thousands of URLs weekly

However, unabashed, the South Korean government has merely replaced ICEC with another administrative body whose job it is to apply new, vague legal standards to the Internet. Made up of nine members appointed by the president, the Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) was created to regulate Internet content. The KCSC describes its own role as protecting “internet users' rights and prevent circulation of illegal and detrimental information in the cyberworld”, but in reality has been used to control a broad scope of content, including gambling sites, and sites containing allegedly defamatory content. South Korea has also enacted considerable surveillance measures, as well as a restriction on online anonymity that is being challenged in the Constitutional Court.

Professor K.S. Park is a member of KCSC, one of three members suggested by the opposition party. Prof. Park is a scholar with a long history of defending online freedom of expression, and he organized the constitutional challenge against the rule abolishing online anonymity. As a member of KCSC, Prof. Park meets with the eight other members twice a week to review URLs that have been flagged by the community. Prof. Park has long argued that the KCSC has too much authority to prevent people from accessing expressive content on the web. As a member of the censorship board, he works to steer KCSC into a more lenient interpretation of the censorship laws. Often, he is unsuccessful, and content that he has determined non-harmful to the public is banned.

In July, Prof. Park decided to begin exploring the nuances of these censorship choices in his blog. Believing that a censorship regime is terrible but a secret censorship regime is even worse, he used his blog to educate people about the types of content that were being removed from the Internet in South Korea. He would publish a sample of the type of content that had been removed and include a legal discussion of the removal choice. For example, Prof. Park posted non-sexual pictures of human male anatomy, such as those found in sex education books, along with the argument that such images are not obscene and that even by the conservative Korean standards it's enough to just place age-restrictions on access. Six of his fellow commissioners rejected the argument.

As a result, in August, Prof. Park found his own blog on the roster of sites to be considered by the KCSC board. He inveighed the board for attempting to choke off his free expression. Ultimately, his own blog became the subject of debate amongst the other board members. In an act of compromise, Prof. Park has modified his previous blog entries to remove the "offensive" content and removed the blog from the board’s deliberation, but other members of the board have officially vowed to take actions against his blog in the future.

If Prof. Park’s blog is removed from the Internet, it will be a double blow for the people of South Korea. Not only will another valuable website be banned, but the people of South Korea will lose their only practical method of overseeing the work of the KCSC and holding the board accountable for its online censorship choices. While it is true that the board meetings are open to public viewing, the sheer volume of censorship (i.e. close to 10,000 URLs a month) makes it unwieldy for public oversight. Furthermore, the authors of the censored URLs are not given an opportunity to defend themselves in the censorship deliberations. For the most part, the public isn't participating in the censorship choices made by KCSC because access to the process is so cumbersome, resulting in a regulatory board with no meaningful public oversight.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, has stated [PDF] that "censorship measures should never be delegated to a private entity" and that "no State should use or force intermediaries to undertake censorship on its behalf,” noting the KCSC as a "quasi-State and quasi private entity" tasked with just that. Indeed, the KCSC lacks transparency and accountability, relying solely on a board of nine individuals to determine what online content is appropriate for Korean viewers. And as Prof. Park’s story illustrates, dissent is not tolerated.

The EFF is deeply troubled by the rise of administrative boards to censor the Internet—now extant in Turkey, Australia, India and South Korea. We are sending an open letter to the Korean Communications Standards Commission condemning attempts to shut the public out of their work and urging them to embrace transparency and online freedom of expression. Click here to read the letter. It is our hope that international pressure, combined with the public outcry in South Korea, can help expose the flaws of this administrative censorship regime and restore real freedom of expression to the South Korean Internet.


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