The country has fully realised the importance of the Internet in opening up and expanding the economy. In just three years, the number of people online rose from three million to 26 million, largely because of the growth of high-speed connections, whose quality is a big draw.

Black list of 120,000 sites

Despite being so widely used, the Internet is still regulated. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world, in 1995, to pass a law about the distribution and viewing of online material. The Information Communication Ethics Committee (ICEC) monitors the content of websites and forums very closely and can recommend that access to them be blocked.

The information and communication ministry called in July 2001 for access to be barred to 120,000 sites it considered offensive. These included sites featuring pornography, violence, information about computer hacking, spreading viruses, cybercrime and euthanasia. The government asked for filters against them to be installed on computers in cybercafés, schools and public libraries. ISPs faced prosecution if they did not install them too. The reason given was to protect young people from exposure to supposedly dangerous content.

This argument was rejected by Jinbonet, which campaigns for Internet freedom in South Korea. It was just one more attack on the Internet, it said, after the government was forced in 2000 to abandon an earlier proposal to introduce online censorship as a result of a public uproar. Jinbonet said the ministry had experts working on ways to block sites.

ICEC shut down the anti military service site non-serviam in May 2002 for two months, on grounds that military service was an obligation for all Korean men and that anti-militarist campaigns had drawn many complaints. The decision was taken under article 53 of the 1995 law.

A month later, the country's constitutional court struck down article 53, along with article 16 providing for its application, after criticism by Jinbonet and the group Lawyers for a Democratic Society. In November, parliament amended Article 53, replacing the term "dangerous content" with "illegal content." But the powers of ICEC and the ministry to monitor and punish were upheld.

Political militant arrested

Kim Kang-pil, an activist of the far-left Democratic Labour Party, was arrested on 25 July 2002 for posting articles about North Korea on the party's website. He was held under article 7 of the national security law which severely punishes sympathisers of the North Korean regime. He was accused of committing "an act advantageous to the enemy" and sentenced to a year in prison and banned from voting for a year. After the trial, an anti Internet censorship group said it clearly showed the government was monitoring political and social websites and that there must be others reasons for the sentence. Kim was freed on 3 December after an appeals court had suspended his sentence.

Gay website banned

A federation of 15 gay rights associations filed a suit against the government in January 2002 for banning the country's first website for homosexuals, The group, the Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea, pointed out that the national constitution did not permit the government to interfere with people's sexual orientation and that banning the site was a violation of the guarantee of freedom of expression, speech and the media.

A government committee on the protection of children, answering to the prime minister's office, had called the website pornographic and harmful to young people's morality. But a few months earlier, the committee had placed on the Internet the uncensored details of the sexual offences committed against children under 13 by about 60 named people, whose personal and professional details were also given.

High-speed connections help hackers

One result of the Internet's success and the ease of connection through high-speed access is that hackers are particularly active. A study in 2001 by consultants Predictive Systems said a third of all hacking done outside the United States originated in or passed through South Korea.

An example was the episode of a US spy-plane forced to land in China in May 2001, which triggered furious activity by US and Chinese hackers, with South Korea as the cyber-battlefield. More than 100 attacks were made on the websites of universities, companies and research centres in South Korea, because the country has so many connections with both countries. The hackers on both sides wanted to conceal their identity so they hid behind South Korea rather than attack the "enemy" directly.

Election campaign online

The December 2002 presidential elections featured on an online battle between animated websites set up by young journalists close to reformist candidate Roh Moo-hyun and major newspapers such as the right-wing daily Chosun Ilbo. Roh's victory was helped by support from sites such as OhmyNews, which got 20 million visitors a day during the campaign. The site's founder, Oh Yeon-ho, said he had reproduced online the equivalent of the pro-democracy street-fighting in the 1980s. The site, based on a network of 23,000 "citizen-reporters" all over the country, had a scoop when it exposed a scandal involving the Hyundai industrial group.

Jinbonet and the Progressive Network Center
Ministry of information and communication
The independent online paper OhmyNews


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