Tuesday, September 28, 2010

US to follow Korean lead on creating a policed Internet?

The United States government is trying to require Internet services to submit to government surveillance. Encrypted communications that can't be tracked by law enforcement, the government argues, makes it easy for criminals to escape the law. You might be swayed by the example of a drug cartel or terrorist cell doing what they do with impunity because the government can't crack their Facebook messages, but is this where we want to go?

Glenn Greenwald of Salon writes (emphasis is mine) in a fantastically thorough article on the matter:

"In other words, Internet services could legally exist only insofar as there would be no such thing as truly private communications; all must contain a "back door" to enable government officials to eavesdrop".

In other words, where this would be going is towards the Korean model. Not only is the Internet here not anonymous, but users are accountable to, and traceable by, the government. Consider this case, where a 17-year-old high school student was arrested for spreading a rumour that escaped convicts were roaming the city raping and killing teenage girls.

There is some credence to the fact that the Internet is more central in Korean civil society than it in the West, so the power of the Internet is greater than it is elsewhere. However, people spread falsehoods in all forms, why invert the traditional process by not only ignoring the Internet's exceptionalism, but focusing on the Internet as a source of perversion? When politicians claim false North Korean threats, accuse Westerners of spreading AIDS (this seems to be why we're tested so often), should they not be arrested as well for spreading rumours?

About two years ago, Korea came up with a fantastic way to police the Internet called the real-name law. Using the Internet for anything remotely useful, such as using a blog or message board, commenting on news articles, but also buying a rice cooker, reserving movie tickets or even using free wireless in a coffee shop, now requires entering your name and identification number.

This was probably not a shocking step for a country that has been a military dictatorship for 40 of its 60 years, and one where everyone is fingerprinted by the police upon reaching adulthood, but it does represent an absurd abuse of power. The entire scam was cooked up when raucous protests about the safety of American beef, driven by online rumours and fear-mongering, threatened to bring down the current government.

To clamp down on nonsense spread on the Internet, the government required virtually any use of the Internet to be tied to a real name. In theory, this could keep people safer, but it also means that people have been arrested for blogging unpopular opinions that apparently were not safe for reading. Even if people were not being arrested, it's patronizing and insulting to be forced to enter your ID number at all times. Part of being an adult in a democracy is to not have to answer or explain your actions to the state, unlike the current state of affairs.

Now, it's worth appending a disclaimer to all this. I'm particularly vexed by all this because I'm part of a very small group of people in Korea that are literate but are not citizens. Our identification numbers generally don't work (often I have to input my name backwards, and in capitals), making me a literate adult that has to get friends or coworkers to perform the most asinine tasks for him.

I often try and explain this to Koreans on Twitter as following: "I wish that you couldn't use Twitter without having a US social security number". Or, "I wish you couldn't use Gmail until you took your passport and mailed it to California, where someone could verify that you are who you say you are". If you don't think that something as mundane as an email account, Twitter or Facebook should be tied to even a credit card, much less an official government ID, you probably wouldn't be too fond of using the Korean Internet.

The final consequence of Korea's ridiculous laws is that it creates a closed society that barely exists for citizens, much less anyone outside of it. Websites around the world are free to be used by anyone, until you get to Korean websites, which only work with Internet Explorer, a boatload of Active-X controls, security certificates, and about a half-dozen forms of identification (cell phone number, credit card number, passport, ID card).

There will be a G20 summit in Seoul in November. Ads proclaim that "세계가 대한민국을 주목합니다" ("The world is paying attention to Korea"). And I'm sure they will. I'm sure that a group of people might sit down with a laptop and pick up a dozen wireless networks, which are only available to citizens. I'm sure they'll be thrilled to go past the large quarantine zones at the airport, be greeted by the large sign at immigration informing them that they are "FOREIGNERS", and they'll definitely be thrilled to not understand when groups of teenagers mutter "아 진짜! 흑인 있다!" ("Hey look! It's a black guy!")

1 comment:

Tuttle said...

Well, the real-name law is pathetic. Go to your YouTube account and try to post a video. It says, "No, this function is voluntarily disabled by YouTube to meet Korea's laws."

Go to the bottom of the page and change your location from "Korea" to "Worldwide".

Now you can post. How stupid is that? Pretty damn.