Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Korea is like an oxcart going along a highway"

[Another update: Via the Marmot's Hole, Wired looks at the Minerva case, and even brings up Junius. Favourite quote: “That’s the government’s job, to maintain a nice, clean Internet.”]

[Update: I meant to link to this post at Roboseyo...]

Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Ki-cheon takes a critical look at Korea's dependence on Microsoft and lack of diversity.
Korea's Internet monoculture has been a subject of concern here for some time and remains an issue. In a recently published book, Kim Ki-chang, a professor at Koryo University, says that Korea's Internet environment is so unsound that nothing like it can be found in any other country in the world.

What is the problem? For one thing, accessing many Korean websites requires jumping through hoops not found anywhere else in the world. [...] Nowhere else are websites so complicated and inconvenient.
No one will be surprised that Korean cyberspace - and the software that supports it - is monolithic ['One portal to rule them all'], as cyberspace reflects the people, institutions, and governments that populate, maintain, and rule it. That internet 'structures', so to speak, are weak or on shaky foundations should also be no surprise. What I find fascinating about the internet in Korea is precisely how it reflects the society that created it. The hardware aspect of it, and the speed at which Korea set up its broadband infrastructure is impressive, much like the miracle on the Han, but the software aspects of it represent a structural weakness not so different from the Sangsu Seongsu bridge teetering over that river.

People moved into cyberspace quickly, using it to organize World Cup red devil street cheering and the candlelight protests in 2002 that influenced the election. The government responded by banning all use of the internet to discuss elections during campaigns from then on in, in order to try to prevent 2002 from happening again, but were caught off guard by the 2008 mad cow protests, which in many ways took place as much in cyberspace as in the symbolic space of Seoul's downtown streets. What's interesting in reading accounts of foreign explorers who visited Korea during the Joseon dynasty is how pervasive the government's control of the people was, and how much the people feared talking to the foreigners - at least until no one else was watching. That control has been replicated in an even more pervasive way with the need to use your resident number to do almost anything on the internet, and has been augmented further with the real name system. Now, once events occur, the authorities can trace them back to a single post on the internet and arrest the person (aren't those truth-is-no-defence libel laws handy?). Worth noting is that, with its need for resident numbers, Korea's internet is essentially off limits to the outside world, and a media which is happy to exploit the language barrier and misrepresent what is said in foreign media and a search engine which gives pitiful results when searching in other languages (in comparison to Google) help recreate the Hermit Kingdom of old online, much as the real name system has helped recreate a degree of the authoritarianism and surveillance of the post war authoritarian governments.

It's in Korean cyberspace that we see many of the conflicts that a rapidly modernizing Korea is currently going through, with the desire for democracy and openness slamming up against the state's desire to maintain its authority in the manner that it has for hundreds of years (and which is profoundly anti-democratic). It's also the site of conflict between those who accept or reject Korea's demographic changes over the past two decades, which have challenged the basis of the ethnic nationalism which was used to bind people together in the post war period, from someone like Minu, who used music and video to share a message of inclusiveness, to Anti English Spectrum, who preach a message of exclusiveness and intolerance - to 'expel the barbarians.'

I took a course in my last year of university on the public sphere in England in the 1770s and 1780s, and much of what was interesting about that course was watching how the growth of the press created the public realm - a latter-day cyberspace - and the social changes and popular culture that stemmed from it. This era followed the gin craze - which Gord Sellar has compared to Korea's dependence on soju - and featured figures like Junius, who openly criticized those in power with aplomb and wit - and who could likely never appear on the scene in Korea considering its libel laws and lack of anonymity. I've often thought how it would be interesting to compare the growth of the press and public sphere at that time in England with the development of cyberspace in Korea, as the speed at which Korea is embracing it leads me to think that I'm watching a similar process unfold - all of which makes Korea a fascinating place to observe.


Max said...

The point about local search engines not giving good results seems slightly mean. I wonder if there are local search engines in other non-English speaking countries that index non-native languages well in comparison to Google. Korean netizens surely choose Google et al when searching in English, which hasn't been banned here... yet.

I'm curious about the link between the ActiveX problem, total absence of open-ish internet-enabled phones (iPhone and even Samsung's Google Android phone) and the societal problems. I'm sure there is one but I can't quite put my finger on it. Something about controlling the population, as you say. There also seems to be a sense of national exceptionalism; that Korea doesn't need to learn from what is working well abroad (the iPhone et al) or reject what has failed (ActiveX). I'm not sure there's anything sinister in that though, it seems to me more like a superiority complex borne of the rapid rollout you chronicle in the post. I think that sense of superiority is going to get demolished during 2010 by an influx of more open technologies from abroad which simply won't work with the closed Korean web.

And if that happens, we might see more of the technology driving changes in society rather than the other way around. Well, you never know.

kushibo said...

but the software aspects of it represent a structural weakness not so different from the Sangsu bridge teetering over that river

Did you mean Sŏngsu/Seongsu Bridge?

kushibo said...

I think that some of the things you two are talking about have less nefarious origins than you're suggesting, even if the end result is equally as stifling.

Korea's frequent reverting back to 실명제 for this and that stems from before the Internet, when fake names, assumed names, things put in others' names, were used to hide corruption and the rewards of corruption. Fair play and striving toward transparency was the engine that pushed that, and even today, a lot of people would support identity verification online to protect the masses from the abusers. (Not saying that's good or bad, just that that's the way a lot of people feel).

The effective blocking out of people without ROK national IDs was a byproduct, not the intent, and the government went through considerable expense to rectify that, an effort which failed because corporate entities did not see (and haven't seen, until recently) how the tiny few new customers they would get by switching would justify the effort and expense.

Similarly, with ActiveX, it's a feeling that there's nothing wrong, because the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of Koreans have not had a problem with it. Most Koreans, I would venture to guess, aren't even aware of the problems of ActiveX that people using non-Korean systems have (and trust me, this is a problem I wish did not exist; I had to buy a Korean-language Windows machine for my small start-up company just because of this).

Finally, this sentence jumped out at me, Max:
There also seems to be a sense of national exceptionalism; that Korea doesn't need to learn from what is working well abroad (the iPhone et al) or reject what has failed (ActiveX).

I personally have made some considerable coin through much of the 1990s and this decade by the opposite of this statement being true.

ActiveX exists because it was once the norm for PCs (as I understand it; I'm a lifelong Mac user), and it still works just fine for most everyone. Until very recently, few Koreans would have seen any more need to scrap this than, say, a Hong Konger would feel a need to scrap driving on the left side of the road.

As for iPhone, the late arrival of that product (and yes, I have one) has much more to do with Apple's decades-long incompetent penetration strategy in Korea and Japan.

matt said...

"Korean netizens surely choose Google et al when searching in English"

But do they? Naver managed to block Google's bots when it was getting started, so that it got better (Korean language) results than Google. Certainly, from conversations with students, Naver seemed to be the only way to go, and if I used Google, they commented on me using it as if it was out of the ordinary (when I was looking up stuff in English). That's why I pointed out Naver's poorer English language results.

And yes, Seongsu Bridge. D'oh!

This post was mostly throwing out some ideas I've had bouncing around. As you say, Kushibo, the origins of some of what I talked about might not be nefarious, but the results end up being the same anyways. I found it interesting that the Dog Poop Girl seemed to be the catalyst for the real name system - and essentially it was, for getting it put into place - but upon further digging I found out the government had suggested it two years earlier, which then made me view the calls for a real name system in a new light. (And that was the Roh administration, though whether the source was from the administration or the national assembly (GNP at the time, I think?) I'm not sure. If it was from Roh's people, maybe people gnashing their teeth over the evils of Lee Myung-bak might want to relax a little.

Much of what makes me compare Korean cyberspace to the Hermit Kingdom stems from the need to use a resident number to sign into so many sites (instead of an email account). Much of what allows for surveillance and exclusion follows from there.

Darth Babaganoosh said...

"Korean netizens surely choose Google et al when searching in English"

Not according to my students.

Although with the realname system in place, they are slowly migrating away from Naver/Daum/Cyworld and going over to Google/Facebook.