South Korea: Perspectives on Chinese New Net Control Laws

On December 28, 2012, the Chinese government approved a set of new net control laws that would make it compulsory for internet intermediaries such as Internet Service Providers (ISP) and Online Service Providers (OSP) to enforce users’ real name registration. In South Korea, a similar online real name registration policy has been in place since 2005, but with little success and eventual failures. In this post, we will examine the South Korean experiment and see the lessons Chinese netizens can learn from it.

How it all started in South Korea

The policy was first introduced in 2005. It was coined the “Real Name Verification Law” (제한적 본인 확인제 in Korean) and was part of the “Public Official Election Law” (”공직선거법” in Korean). This historical background demonstrated the legislation was associated with political elites’ interests to suppressing online dissent. Two years later, in 2007, despite protests and criticism from the civil society with regard to threats to online privacy and freedom of expression, the law was expanded to be part of a broader “Information and Communication Network Law” (”정보통신망법” in Korean). Under this new regulation, South Korean netizens were forced to register their real name and resident registration numbers even if they were just commenting on online news bulletins. The regulation was originally limited to sites with more than 300,000 visitors per day. However, in 2009, the bar was lowered to sites with 100,000 visitors per day. The official rationale for this government encroachment on the net was to “reduce the use of offensive language in the cyberspace.”

How the legacy of the authoritarian past led to an Orwellian present

The most controversial element in the legislation is the fact it not only requires users to provide their real names but also their resident registration numbers (“주민등록번호” in Korean). Resident registration numbers are a legacy of the troubled past of South Korea and bring up bad memories. They were first introduced in the 1970s, during the authoritarian rule of Park Jung Hee, officially to help detect North Korean spies.

Many internet users think these registration numbers, while endangering their privacy, are used today to justify an Orwellian control of the internet. The system is also vulnerable. Personal information of South Korean internet users was leaked several times onto the Internet.

On August 23, 2012, the law was challenged before the South Korean Constitutional Court which ruled that the “Real Name Verification Law” (legislated as part of Information and Communication Network Law) was unconstitutional. The court considered that the law hinders online freedom of expression, harms privacy protection and is being challenged by the emergence of foreign and new online services that are not subject to the regulation, such as YouTube and Twitter.

Jeonghwan Lee, a prominent South Korean independent journalist, hailed [ko] the court decision. He lamented, however, that much harm has been caused by the law already. He blamed it on what he called an “ill-conceived state decision inspired by our tormented and tortured past” (오욕과 삽질의 역사 in Korean).

South Korea's Constitutional Court – by Passion84Photos (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Korean perspectives on the Chinese new net control laws

Since China announced it will enforce a real name registration policy, reactions from South Korean netizens were generally negative. They have experienced first-hand the “side-effects” of such a policy and realized long ago that its promises were hollow. Some of them also acknowledged that the new Chinese regulations might have a different effect as the two countries differ economically and politically.

Blogger Barobaro while noting that the Chinese real name registration policy has been actually introduced in 2005, warns [ko] of its impact on foreign firms operating in Chinese domestic market. He writes:

이번 법안은 “모든 인터넷 사용자들이 인터넷 서비스를 사용할 시 반드시 실명인증을 하도록 한 것”으로서 다시 말해서 기존의 모든 실명제를 포함할 뿐만이 아니라 해당 사항을 중국시장에 진출하려는 해외기업에까지 강요할 것으로 보인다.

This act forces “all net users to register their names to use online services”. It means, in other words, that the Chinese real name verification system will be enforced on foreign firms as well.

The blogger also wonders [ko] why the Chinese government has decided to expand the real name registration policy when it has “spectacularly failed” in neighboring South Korea:

한국에서는 2012년 8월 23일 헌법재판소에서 위헌판정을 내리면서 2007년부터 실행되어 온 인터넷실명제가 폐지되었다. 2011년 9월 뉴욕타임즈에서 지적하였다 싶이 ““온라인에서의 익명 표현의 자유는 단순히 개인 정보 보호 차원이 아니라 아랍의 반정부 시위에서 보듯이 정치적으로 민감한 반대 의견을 표명하거나 기업의 기밀을 폭로하려는 내부 고발자에게 필수적”이라고 하였듯이 표현의 자유의 문제와 직결된다. 단순히 이념적인 문제뿐만이 아니라 옥션, 네이트의 개인정보가 해킹을 통해서 대량으로 유출되는 등의 심각한 문제가 발생하였다.

In South Korea, the Constitutional Court killed the five-year old regulation which started in 2007. As The New York Times pointed out “online anonymous expression is not only a matter of personal privacy protection. As shown from the case of the Arab Spring, it is indispensable for political dissenters expressing opposing ideas[, and also] to whistle-blowers revealing the inside information of companies.” Maintaining an online anonymous identity is directly associated with freedom of expression. It is not only an ideological question, as we have witnessed when the public was shocked to discover Auction and Nate's accumulated users’ personal information leaked following a massive hacking attack.

The blogger, however, thinks [ko] that, unlike South Korea, the Chinese government will succeed in cementing net control via its real name registration policy, as the two countries’ political systems vary with regard to democratic accountability:

중국은 한국과는 다르게 성공할 것으로 보인다. 한국에서는 사실상 수 많은 유져들이 해외서비스를 이용하는 현실적인 회피수단과 동시에 민주주의가 일정 이상 자리 잡은 곳이었기에 인터넷 실명제는 결국 패망할 수 밖에 없었다.  그러나 중국은 구글이나 위키와 같은 “자유언론”을 지지하는 해외 인터넷 싸이트을 완전히 차단하는 행위를 이미 하고 있고, 그 결과 중국정부에 충성하는 국내기업들에 중국사용자들이 모두 몰려 있는 상황이기에 얼마든지 인터넷 실명제를 시행할 수 있으며, 개인정보유출과 같은 인터넷 실명제의 폐단을 은닉할 수 있으리라 생각된다.

Nevertheless, China will succeed in cementing the net control via real name [registration] policy which is quite different from that of the South Korean government. In South Korea, many users can freely use foreign services and democracy has been institutionalized to some extent. Thus real name verification from the beginning was very fragile. However in China, foreign services that support free expression like Google and Wikipedia are totally banned. Chinese users are only using the domestic Internet firms which show loyalty towards the Chinese government. So the Chinese regime can more comfortably enforce real name registration policy, even if serious privacy crises occur, as the government can always conceal its existence at all.

Blogger eBizbooks points out that some Chinese leaders misinterpreted the impact of the real name verification law on the South Korean society. He shares Barobaro‘s concern that this shift towards control will diminish the attractiveness of the Chinese market to foreign entrepreneurs and investors:

[중국의] 인터넷 실명제 찬성 측의 찬성 찬성 이유 중 하나는 “인터넷 선진국인 한국에서는 실명제를 실시하고 있다”는 것입니다. 중국 정부는 자신들의 체제 유지에 가장 위협적인 요소 중 하나로 인터넷에서의 다양한 주장 표출을 꼽습니다. 정치인들이 곧잘 얘기하는 “민심이 곧 천심”이라면 그 하늘이 인터넷인 것이지요. … 현재 중국의 인터넷 이용자 수는 4억을 넘었으며 2006년 이후부터의 폭팔적인 상승세는 현재진행형입니다. 이들의 힘은 제대로 기능하지 못하는 언론의 기능을 대신 수행하여 정부를 감시할 정도로 막강합니다. … 중국 정부는 당연히 두려울 수밖에 없지요. 이러한 상황에서 중국 정부의 인터넷 통제가 완화되리라는 기대는 시기상조일 겁니다. 중국 진출을 염두에 둔 분들이시라면 결국에는 시장 철수한 구글처럼 중국 인터넷의 통제와 검열의 리스크가 완화되기를 기대하기보다는, 중국 인터넷 시장 상황에 맞는 전략을 다시 수립한 다음 차분히 기회를 노려야겠지요.

[In China], those who are in favor of tightening net control boast that “South Korea, a leading nation in the Internet, already has employed a real name registration policy”. The Chinese government regards the diversity of opinions blossoming over the internet as a challenge to the regime's security. [As the old saying goes] “the collective mind of citizens is the heavenly sovereignty”. It is now expressed through the Internet […] Currently China has more than 4 million net users and it has bee rapidly growing. The Internet public sphere somehow replaced the malfunctioning Chinese media and played the role of a watchdog… It is therefore understandable that the Chinese government fears the Internet. Under this circumstance, it is unlikely that the Chinese government will lighten its grip on the net. […] If you are considering moving your business into China, you need to set up a new business strategy that is adaptable to Chinese government-led market and must wait until the risk imposed by Chinese net control and surveillance is softened.


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