The blocking of information, the suspension of online services such as social media platforms, blogs or messaging apps, surveillance over what users do online and consequently the violation of privacy are characteristic of countries with strong authoritarian regimes.

South Korea, however, comes as an exception: It is a country with a rather healthy democracy that insistently seeks to censor content and websites as well as violates user’s privacy. While other democratic countries with similar freedom indexes have attempted to do the same, South Korea has gone beyond most of its peers in terms of censorship.


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A member of the Korean Veterans Association holds up a card showing images of U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, during a rally to welcome a visit by Trump, in Seoul, South Korea.

A History of Corrupted Leadership

The country’s tendency towards censorship can be explained with its long history of corrupted politicians manipulating information and public opinion. Since 1988, after the end of Chun Doo-hwan (全斗煥)’s dictatorship, all democratically elected presidents became involved in scandals, mostly related to corruption and controlling online opinions (or at least having unrestricted access to them).

Roh Tae-woo (盧泰愚), the president between 1988 and 1993, was involved in a slush-fund scandal; and Roh Moo-hyun (盧武鉉), who served as president between 2003 and 2008, committed suicide while under investigation for bribery. Meanwhile, the current South Korean President Moon Jae-in (文在寅), elected with a discourse of moralizing politics, was caught in the middle of denunciations against allies from within his personal circle and silencing critics of his policies towards North Korea.

With North Korea as its threatening neighbor, South Korea also has the perfect excuse for internet censorship: national security. It ends up being an overused argument to promote a crackdown on “fake news” and the blocking of websites that are accused of being pro-North Korea.


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Korea Internet and Security Agency in Seoul, South Korea

Vague Definition of "Harmful" Content

The South Korean government is not particularly tolerant of criticisms against its politicians and certain ideologies, with bloggers risking arrest for expressing their opinions. Content deemed “harmful” or “subversive” is often censored, echoing China’s restrictive measures to prevent millions of citizens from freely expressing themselves online.

Often the definition of what might be harmful or subversive is not clear, sometimes even impossible to grasp, leaving room for all types of obscure censorship measures manipulated by politicians to target their opponents.

The global control over content by both governments and tech giants gives South Korea another reason to limit content consumption. Facebook, for example, imposes strict policies on any pornographic content, censoring anything deemed suggestive, including the female nipples. In addition to censoring images, Facebook also decided to remove users whose ideologies do not seem to fit for the platform, leading to yet another debate on freedom of speech.

Since 2008, search engines operating in South Korea, including foreign-owned companies, are forced to verify age for keywords deemed inappropriate for minors. In February, the government decided to ban access to 895 porn websites and impose heavy penalties for taking or distributing pornography. Sexually offensive writings and drawings can also be grounds for punishment.


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Stricter Censorship Measures in 2019

According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2012 Internet Enemies Report, South Korea is considered a “country under surveillance.” Internet freedom has only been further limited since then, with stricter measures introduced by the government this year.

In February, South Korea’s government decided to expand its site-blocking measures with SNI eavesdropping, in other words, the government and track and block access to HTTPS websites in order to prevent piracy and access to gambling and porn websites among other reasons.

Internet users could easily circumvent previous measures of censorship, such as DNS filtering, by using a different DNS server or by visiting the HTTPS version of any website. Now, the censorship has become more sophisticated. Though online users can still access blocked websites with a VPN, not everyone knows how to use one. The safest providers are also not free, therefore preventing more people from freely accessing internet content.

Then, in March, Korea Communications Commission announced a plan to give the government authority to shut down any domestic operation of foreign internet-related companies, as well as making it mandatory for foreign firms to have a domestic partner in South Korea, therefore subjected to South Korean jurisdiction.


Photo Credit: Sipa USA via AP / TPG Images

Gagged people protesting against the Spanish Citizen Security Law, also known as Gag Law, demanding the abolition of the law in 2016.

South Korea’s Online Censorship Reflects a Global Decline of Internet Freedom

South Korea’s move towards a more restricted internet environment is evident in other democratic countries. In Spain, for example, the Gag Law prevents police officers from being recorded and photographed, even if they commit violent acts or repress protests. Media outlets or individuals who publish such material can be severely fined. Using social media to rally friends to join an unauthorized demonstration also became illegal.

In the United States, the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bills targeting online sex trafficking imposed blurry guidelines that would penalize websites with adult content that might not actually involve prostitution, affecting popular websites like Reddit and Craigslist. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the proposed Digital Economy Act that requires pornography websites to carry out age verification is delayed due to public criticisms. Internet users in the U.K. are worried about the violation of data privacy since these websites cannot verify a user’s age without obtaining his or her identity information.

According to the Freedom on the Net 2018 report, digital authoritarianism is on the rise, with governments around the world using “fake news” and other claims to suppress dissent. The reported stated that 26 out of the 65 assessed countries have experienced a decline in internet freedom since 2017, and almost half of the declines were related to elections.

For many democracies, censoring the internet costs less than preventing demonstrations and other forms of expression of discontent. Internet censorship, along with constant user surveillance, can facilitate the anticipation and the subsequent control of social movements as well as maintaining constant vigilance over oppositions.

In a world that is not only globalized, but also increasingly online, internet control has become an important agenda even for the most established democracies.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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