Real-name verification in South Korea

Just a few moment ago I wanted to upload a video to YouTube for a blog post. In the screenshot you’ll see what I encountered (i.e. in the green frame).


Yes, that’s right, real name verification. It is a requirement for all websites with an average daily viewership of 100.000 and more,  only allowing users to upload their content (UserGenerated Content UGC) when they provide their real name. In my case that would be my name and my alien registration number as provided to me by the Korean immigration office. This way it is always possible to track down who has said what on the Internet. In this case I can solve this easily by chanching the location. Then again the video, which is harmless, most likely will not be available in South Korea.

One Korean guy that had to learn the hard way was Park Dae-Sung a.k.a. Minerva, blogging about the financial credit crisis. Read the story in Wired. This goes to show that freedom of speech is still an issue in South Korea.

Freedom comes in different flavors

Being in South Korea some time now I learned that freedom isn’t the same everywhere. Of course everybody knows this. But it’s different experiencing it first hand. Working as a partner in the WCU project showed me some examples of this. However I will not go in detail about that.

What I do want to talk about are the upcoming local elections in South Korea. On June 2nd 2010 the local elections will take place. The thing is, as in all countries these elections have to be organized and regulated. In South Korea, the National Election Commission is responsible for this. But in South Korea regulations are quite strict. For instance, eight (sic) weeks before the elections no surveys and  polls are allows that make any mention of a party or candidate. So opinion polls are not allowed (I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though). In the words of the election committee:

From April 3, 2010 to the Election Day, no one is allowed to use names of certain parties and candidates when he or she conducts surveys on the local elections. This regulation aims to prevent parties and candidates’ tactful political activities to increase voters’ recognition of them by using surveys. However, polling companies or news media commissioned by parties and candidates are able to carry out surveys with some limits: Not allowed 1) to use the name of parties and candidates and 2) to deal with contents considered as election campaigns.

Well, eight weeks is quite a long time. More reasonable would be three or four weeks, in my opinion. The official campaign starts only two weeks prior to the elections.

Not only that, Twitter – my favorite research topic these last months – has entered the political arena in South Korea as well. Candidates are stimulated to start using it by their political parties. Read this article. Unfortunately, that is, for the candidates the South Korean election commission does not approve.They’ll monitor Twitter activities closely. So close that they’ll subscribe to candidates’ Tweeting with their own Twitter username nec3939. I wonder what the 3939 stands for. I’d be interesting to follow which candidates refuses the NEC as a follower. Also, what would the consequences be if they did. For now the NEC has more followers than they follow themselves.

At the same time, the election commission has reached an agreement with online journalists about election reporting in the campaign:

As the 5th Nationwide Local Elections is nearing, the NEC hosted a signing ceremony of agreement for the clean online election culture with online journalism associations and companies on April 21, 2010. In the ceremony, ten representatives of online journalism associations and online portal companies attended. The NEC entered into an agreement with them about the following cooperation for: 1) objective and impartial reporting on platforms of parties and candidates, 2) proper action to unlawful notices and information related to elections and 3) creating sound cyber election culture to encourage netizens’ political participation.

You’d expect that this would happen without having to sign an agreement. OK I don’t think it’s possible to have complete impartial reporting. But then again who would want bland reporting.

On a positive note, the South Korean election commission knows how to stimulate people to get out and vote. See this pop-up of the English page. Agreed? This looks nicer than the Dutch election commission.

Restrictions also apply to the use of YouTube. All websites that have more than 100.000 subscribers are to have are to use a real-name verification system to monitor comments and uploaded video’s. So, Google’s YouTube was also subject to this regulation. But Google that thinks freedom of expression on the Internet is very important decided to limit comment and upload functionality on the South Korean YouTube. By doing so Google does not need to implement the real-name verification system. At the same time it’s very easy to subscribe to the American YouTube in doing so circumventing the rules. But who can blame them. And not all South Koreans agree with these regulations: see this article. This raises the question what it’s for, these regulations. Regulations are only effective when there is a likely chance to be punished when violating them. If not, they’re useless.

In my opinion, it’s the beginning of the end. And let’s be honest, a free and democratic country should not enforce these type of regulations. I’ll probably will be dismissed being a Westerner to have this opinion. Maybe so, but then again …. so what. Mark my words, it’s just a matter time.

OK, one final example: try to visit a North Korean website when in South Korea. For instance this one or this one (note the .com and .jp domain extensions). Outside South Korea you’ll be able to see them. But visiting the sites from South Korea, you’ll see this. OK, my Korean language skills are still not great but this page sends a clear message: DON’T GO THERE.

Surfing the web in South Korea

As we all know, South Korea is famous for its Internet landscape: high adoption rates and high bandwidth. However, on browsing the web in South Korea I have some mixed feelings. Of course the speed is very high. Up- and downloading speed is very high. Even higher than my subscription (one of the fastest available from UPC)  in the Netherlands. However, the speed at YU considerably slower. In the Netherlands, in my experience, speed at universities are higher than in regular homes.

The websites in South Korea have an altogether different feel, appearance (whatchamacallit)  than western web pages. Important is of course the Hangeul character set. These characters seem to make the design more delicate. This is enhanced by the use of light and pastel colours on the page. Furthermore the pages often have some animation as the builds up quickly. See for instance these pages of YeungNam University, Lotte department store, and Ohmynews.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem, especially for people coming from abroad. All websites and computers are totally dedicated to Microsoft. First of all, you will not find any other browser than Internet Explorer. While the European Union forces Microsoft to show all different browsers while starting up the newly bought computer, in South Korea you are forced to use Internet Explorer. Without it you will not venture far in Korean cyberspace. Not only that, the dominant IE version is 6,  whereas Internet Explorer 8 is already released some time ago. There is an important reason for this: it turns out many Korean websites use ‘Active X’ controls for loading apps into the browser. Because it is not supported for other browsers, people only can use IE. Apart from this, ‘Active X’ is been said to suffer from security issues.

Coming to South Korea, oblivious of this issue and assuming browsing is browsing, using Firefox became quite frustrating. Gmail simply didn’t work on my university computer: I’d see my list of emails but was not able to open any of them. So what do you do when you’re an avid Firefox user with many add-ons installed, do you switch to Internet Explorer? I didn’t. Why? Well, when using Internet Explorer for all more special navigation activities, I was asked to install all kind of ActiveX things. What they were I still don’t know, because it was in Korean. My colleagues at YU assured me it was OK to install them. Also, it appears slow, and has little additional functionality. So, I decided to abort the use of IE altogether. Now, I use Google Chrome, and it works fine but not perfect. OK it’s lightweight, but little additional functionality. And in South Korea it is also a bit buggy: sometimes, I navigate to another website by clicking a link, which is not an uncommon thing to do. Then, Chrome tells me the link is broken. Oh? Then, copy-pasting the URL in the address bar subsequently shows no problems with the link whatsoever.

So, I still miss my Firefox, especially because of some essential Firefox add-ons, such as Zotero, Delicious, Downthemall! and Mouse-gestures. I hope for the Korean people and for researchers in general things change rapidly, because although Korea is famous for its Internet speed and Internet adoption, it is also infamous for the Microsoft monopoly.