South Korea: How to Regain Ownership of the Internet

On January 11, 2012, Network Neutrality Forum (ko), an alliance of South Korean Internet freedom-concerned civic organizations, hosted a public workshop at the Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea, to address concerns over waning civic participation in global Internet governance.

Internet policy expert and lawyer Borami Kim moderated the whole event and Professor Dongman Lee, from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the early participants in Korean Internet governance, joined as a main speaker. The panel also included Eung Hwi Chon, a seasoned Internet civic activist at the Green Consumer's Network, and Jae Yeon Kim, an activist and member of Creative Commons Korea and Global Voices Online.

Lawyer Borami Kim. Photo by Jinbonet (CC BY)

The inconvenient truth about Internet governance

During his lecture, Professor Dongman Lee emphasized what he called the inconvenient truth about Internet governance: “Many people are tempted to believe that the cyberspace is a de facto level-playing field,” he says, “but that is hardly the truth.” At least at the level of Internet critical infrastructure resources, such as domain names and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, the controversies regarding who controls the net are the more conspicuous. In recent years, many nations, especially emerging powers such as Russia and China, have constantly challenged the U.S. control of the roots of the Internet. The U.S., on the other hand, have faced difficulty balancing their global leadership with their so-called national interest. This unresolved problem was one of the agendas of recent global public debates on the process and consequences of World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) held in Dubai in late 2012.

Although the Internet was not directly mentioned in the WCIT final resolution, Pr. Lee warned of the potential implications of Article 5A which deals with security problems on the network. As a technology expert, he warned that this particular clause in the final WCIT document may bring about problems in terms of global filtering of the free flow of information. He asserted that such scenario will be fatal for the future healthy growth of the Internet as a liberating medium for all.

Professor Dongman Lee from KAIST. Photo by Jinbonet (CC BY)

How net regulations hindered Korean civil society's participation in global internet governance

Eung Hwi Chon's presentation followed Professor Lee's lecture was more focused on how South Korean net regulations have hindered Korean civil society's participation in global Internet governance. He stressed that initially Korean civil society had been responsible for the management of distributing domain names and IP addresses. For example, from 1986 to 1994, KAIST lab—the birth place of Korean Internet where Professor Kilnam Chon led his group of students including Professor Lee to pioneer the Internet in Asia—had managed Internet governance in Korea. As a matter of fact, that trend had been consistent from 1986 to 2004.

However, Korean government intervened in this self-regulating Internet governance environment in 2004 by establishing the Internet Address Resource Law (in Korean “인터넷주소자원법”). The law empowered the Korean government which was then able to distribute domain names and collect commission fees without a sufficient auditory structure.

Korean civil society has no say as to how that money is used. Government monopoly over domain name distribution in South Korea has brought about a lack of transparency and accountability. Furthermore, an opaque decision-making culture is prevalent in the Korean information communication technology (ICT) industry, making the market resiliently oligarchic. It is no surprise then, that in terms of revenue, Korea Telecom (KT) has dominated almost half (49.3%) of Korean Internet backbone market in 2010.

Activist Eung Hwi Chon. Photo by Jinbonet (CC BY)

How can transnational activism keep the Internet free 

In his presentation, Jae Yeon Kim raised the question of what a multistakeholder approach, as a governing principle of Internet-related resources, really means and how it can work.

He started by noting that from the very first years of Internet development, the format of public discussions on the Internet has been persistently bottom-up, consensus-based and transparent. This approach, also known as multistakeholderism, has not changed up to date. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the rising venue for global discussions on Internet governance, has adopted the multistakeholder approach as a basic principle and a globally accepted norm.

Nevertheless, the tricky part of multistakeholderism is its implementation. Bringing individuals and organizations who have diverse interests and norms in the same room does not guarantee they will come up with a better idea.

In South Korea, there is a tradition of perverting the idea altogether: the government usually uses experts and cherry-picked civil society members to legitimize a quasi clandestine decision making process. The government often invites those who are in favor of its policy proposals. This is far from the spirit of multistakeholderism. Therefore, Kim insisted that not only appearance but substance counts in Internet governance processes. He proposed that the principles of transparency and accountability be compulsory for Internet policy-related decision-making processes in South Korea.

Kim also stressed the fact that fighting against net control within South Korea is not enough. Since the Internet is a global communication system, isolationism cannot guarantee the victory. A local net control system can rapidly become a global filtering system. Therefore, transnational activism advocating Internet freedom can be an answer to create a counterweight against the forces trying to control the free flow of information. We are now only seeing the beginning of Internet freedom-related transnational activism. How that social movement will become institutionalized in domestic and international settings still is largely unknown.

Activist Jae Yeon Kim. Photo by Jinbonet (CC BY)

In the follow-up discussion, the attendees from Korean online service providers such as NHNDaum Communications, and SK Planet, and government agencies, such as Korea Communications Commission (KCC) and Korea Internet Security & Agency, and other civic activists shared their diverse opinions on the problems of Korean Internet governance and the ways to solve those problems and achieve higher goals.

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