Map of the world zoomed in and focused on South Korea
11 Mar 2019 16:00

South Korea Sparks Controversy With Proposed New Government Internet Controls

Alarm bells are ringing for privacy and free speech advocates following the recent announcement.

Rebecca Duff
By Rebecca DuffStaff Writer

On Thursday 7 March, the Korea Communications Commission announced its new series of plans for 2019. These include introducing a law which would give the South Korean government the power to shut down domestic operations of any foreign internet-related organizations that hold the personal information of South Korean users.

This includes companies such as Google and Facebook, two of the most widely used sites in the world. As it currently stands, global organizations such as these aren’t subject to the same domestic regulations as local firms when it comes to user privacy violations or the misuse of user information. This has led to complaints from Korea-based firms, stating that the law favored foreign companies by creating a double standard.

Once the new law is passed, it will be a legal requirement for foreign firms to operate through a domestic partner completely based in South Korea, therefore bringing them under control of the Korean government. This means that companies will be subject to the country’s rules regarding user privacy and data use, and could face potential shutdown in cases of repeat violations.

Even though the commission has stated that the primary aim of this new law is to put domestic and foreign companies on an equal footing, it would also increase the amount of control the government has over Korean cyberspace.

This has led to concerns regarding the violation of user privacy, especially considering the proposed plan includes eavesdropping on SNI (Server Name Indication) fields, which can then be used to identify the hostname of the target server. This, in turn, allows ISPs to see which sites users are trying to access, so those on the blacklist can be blocked.

Despite the backlash from Korean citizens, Lee Hyo-sung, chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, made a public announcement in an attempt to dismiss suspicions that the government’s recent moves are simply another way of consolidating its ongoing efforts to gain more control over the country’s internet.

He stressed that the only role the government would have would be putting together a list of banned websites to pass onto internet service providers. He also stated that it is aware that there may be potential “concerns” and “problems”, and will be seeking help from experts in the field in order to improve policies. There’s still no concrete evidence as to what this will mean for internet users in Korea, though.