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Curb your enthusiasm: Korean internet is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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Roughly two years ago I moved from a country where net neutrality is implemented by law (the Netherlands) to a country where the freedom of the Internet is under pressure (South Korea). It has been a world of difference using the Internet in both of these countries. To give a feel for how bad the situation really is in South Korea, I will first describe the situation in the Netherlands as a contrast.

The history of how net neutrality in the Netherlands came to be is a fairly recent one. I vividly remember the time when the news leaked that one of the Netherlands’ biggest Internet providers had admitted to its investors it was using a technique called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), with which they could differentiate what the customer was doing on their network. Basically it meant the company was spying on its customers. The plan was to charge extra for certain VoIP and message services because the company was losing money due to decreasing use of SMS and regular calls. The indication that they soon had to pay extra for their WhatsApp use was too much to handle for the Dutch, being the frugal people that they are, and caused such an outrage that the telecom company had to cancel its plan to use the technique. In addition, the Dutch society is also an open one where everybody has the right to express themselves and press freedom is being held in high regard. Therefore, the more informed people worried that the Internet would be controlled by several companies. With these two main arguments, the people urged the Dutch political parties to take action. On 22 June 2011 the Dutch parliament decided to include net neutrality in the new telecom law, and by ratification by the Dutch Senate on 8 May 2012, the Netherlands became one of only two countries in the world (the other being Chile) where net neutrality is guaranteed by the legal system. Thus mirroring the democratic principles of Dutch society in cyberspace.

The benefits of the Dutch net neutrality law for the consumer are many: Internet providers can’t limit or charge extra for certain services, the contents of your Internet traffic can be accessed by your Internet provider only in certain extreme cases, your Internet connection can be disconnected only if you don’t pay your bills or you commit fraud, and you have to give explicit permission to let tracking cookies be installed on your computer, which in turn makes it difficult for advertisers to track your behavior on the Internet. All in all it was and is a huge victory for freedom on the Internet. Although at the time I realized to some extent that this was a big deal, since roughly two years I really know by experience how fortunate the Dutch are.

When, in August 2012, I moved to South Korea, which has a reputation of being the Internet capital of the world, I thought I was going to live in the Valhalla of the Internet. Due to several news stories, I thought positively about the South Korean Internet, which seemed to dazzle the world with not only the fastest download and upload speeds around but also nearly universal LTE and WiFi accessibility. Unfortunately, there are some aspects of the South Korean Internet that don’t get the attention that they deserve in the news, because of the focus of Western media on the speed of the Internet here. I quickly found out that a new 5G network isn’t the most important thing about Internet usage.

A fast Internet connection doesn’t get you anywhere if you’re not able to access everything you want. Sadly, like in the Netherlands, South Korean cyberspace mirrors its society as well. Internet censorship is common: blocking everything from North Korean sites and materials harmful to minors to pornography and even simple nudity. If the government deems it inappropriate, you won’t be able to see it without using a workaround. Unfortunately, blocking some sites is not all the government does; commenting on the Internet isn’t anonymous anymore, since you need to register with your social security number to be able to comment on any Korean Internet portal. That makes it easier to extensively monitor the Internet on anti-government comments. Sometimes action is being taken to cut of the perpetrator’s Internet or even making arrests in some cases. For example Chung Bong-ju, one of the four hosts of the popular South Korean podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda” (나는 꼼수다) and national lawmaker at the time, was found guilty in 2011 of spreading false rumors, accusing then-presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak in 2007 of being affiliated with a company that forged stock prices. Critics have claimed that it was a political motivated sentence, because of its timing just before the presidential elections. The podcast was a very influential channel of anti-government views. All of this is very serious, but the by far most annoying thing on the Korean Internet ever is Active-X.

The country that has the reputation to be years ahead in technology relative to the rest of the globe relies on this archaic 90’s program for its entire e-commerce economy. Forget buying something on your iMac if you’re not willing to partition and install Windows as well. Not only that, Active-X is Internet Explorer only, hence the biggest market share of Internet Explorer in the world. Being the Apple fan boy that I am, this frustrates me immensely. I refuse to install Windows on my iMac and if I would, I don’t want to have anything to do with Internet Explorer. Fortunately, I have a workaround: if I spot something I want, I’ll ask my wife to buy it at her office where she uses a Windows machine. Also I found a bank that has Internet banking for OS X. Well, had Internet banking for OS X.

As a Mac user, you’re such a rarity in this country that you’re met with a lot of misunderstanding and disbelief. When my bank updated their security protocol they somehow forgot that they used to support OS X as well. As a result the site stopped working on an Apple computer and I had to contact the bank’s service center. Their solution was to take over my computer to take a look by sending me an .exe file. When that didn’t work they were genuinely surprised and apparently had no alternative way to access my computer. Not much later after the service center employee promised me she would get back to me and hung up the phone, I got a message that they were unable to solve the problem. So now I have to use my workaround for my Internet banking as well.

iPhone bank message

Having lived here for two years, I now know that not South Korea, but the Netherlands is the real champion of the Internet. Although the overall Internet speed isn’t as fast as that of South Korea, it’s close enough. There is no monitoring, no blocking (although there was one issue with Pirate Bay being blocked), and no Active-X. All government websites have to be accessible by all major browsers and all purchases can be done with any operating system. You can criticize the government without being afraid of being cut off from the Internet. While Dutch cyberspace is a free and open world, South Korean citizens have no access to unfiltered Internet. I have not been homesick often in the two years that I lived in South Korea, but when I stumble on news of Internet censorship being used or when I get confronted by the limitations when browsing the web on my iMac, I long for the possibilities of net neutrality in my own country. I secretly wish South Korea would implement it too. Unfortunately, with democracy more and more under strain, I don’t see that happening in the near future.

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Written by Emre Kanik

I am a Dutch/Turkish ex-politician who moved to South Korea in 2012. Now I write about Korean society through my own experiences and I photograph the country as well. My writing has been described as “It’s like I’m there with you!” and my photography as stunning, but don’t let that stop you from forming your own opinion.

There are 5 comments

  • Ludo says:

    Great read! And thanks for the warning: I won’t buy a Mac just yet.

  • Peter Walsh says:

    Hey Emre, its cool how you described how a nation’s internet can mimic their society. Esp. this example with conservative Korea and the Netherlands, famous for being so open to things illegal elsewhere!

    • Emre Kanik says:

      Thanks Peter, I don’t know every country’ situation in the world but it’s really obvious in the Netherlands and South Korea.

  • Isaac Kim says:

    I hate Active-X, too. That’s why I don’t install it on my computer and just make purchases on my work computer.

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