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High-tech, prosecution, politics face off over cyber censorship

2014/10/15 14:37

SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- The heated controversy in South Korea over cyber censorship has been making a full circle from Internet firms to state authorities and political parties, with no signs of abating.

At the center of the controversy is Daum Kakao, the operator of market-dominant messaging service Kakao Talk. On Monday, it declared it will not cooperate with state investigators seeking to monitor chat records, even when they have search warrants, on the messenger platform, saying it will bear any legal responsibilities from the incompliance.

On Tuesday, the country's top prosecutor lashed back at Daum Kakao's move, saying, "It is unthinkable not to follow the rules in a constitutional country."

   On Wednesday, the issue has blown into a political one.

"The move (by Daum Kakao) reflects users' repulsion and fear against cyber censorship," said Yoo Ki-hong, a spokesman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. "The government should understand the sense of resistance of the people on the issue, rather than justifying its execution of warrants."

   Rep. Jun Byung-hun of the opposition said the core issue of the debate is the government's attitude of abusing its investigative powers.

The ruling Saenuri said Daum Kakao's latest decision is an irresponsible one, despite the understanding that the company is trying to retain its users.

"It is unacceptable as a citizen to break the legal system," said Kim Jae-won, senior deputy floor leader of the ruling party, likening it to driving backwards on a highway.

The controversy is escalating, with other Internet firms joining in to take concerted action against online censorship. The Korea Internet Corporation Association (K-Internet) said Tuesday officials from Daum Kakao, Naver Corp. and SK Communications Co. have already held two sets of meetings to exchange opinions on the state investigative agencies' moves and will meet again next week, after which they are expected to announce their course of action.

The entire debate started when the prosecution, following President Park Geun-hye's complaints about insults against her circulating online, said last month it will investigate false rumors on the Internet.

The issue came with a financial twist for Daum Kakao, borne out of a merger made official just on Oct. 1 between Internet portal Daum and online service provider Kakao. Investors reacted when the company vowed not to comply with investigative agencies, with its shares gaining 8.33 percent on its debut on the secondary KOSDAQ market on Tuesday.

Moves in any direction by Daum Kakao could be explosive. The company commands some 35 million users in the country that has a population of 50 million.

At first, users' fear and concerns were targeted at the government. The prosecution had said it will take strong actions against the spread of false rumors online that "induce social discord."

   Since then, users who were worried that local communication platforms are no longer safe from government surveillance started to "digitally migrate," as the term goes, some switching to Germany-based Telegram.

Telegram, launched by a Russian-born entrepreneur, has suddenly become one of the most popular messenger apps in the local mobile market, and last week, it showcased a Korean version of the application.

The exodus accelerated this month when Daum Kakao said on Oct. 1 that it will cooperate with the state investigators' request for chat records if the request is legal.

"In case of legitimate implementation of the law, we will cooperate with prosecutors, as (Daum Kakao) is subject to the law of South Korea," said Lee Sirgoo, co-CEO of the company at the launch ceremony of the merger between Daum Communications and Kakao.

Then came Daum Kakao's statement Monday, with an apology for confusing users.

South Korea's Internet users already have experienced cyber censorship. In 2008, the online blogger "Minerva" was accused of spreading false information through online postings that claimed the government ordered financial institutions to stop buying dollars in order to curb the local currency's depreciation.

Minerva filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in 2010, asking the court to determine whether the telecommunications law under which he was charged was constitutional. The court ruled the law unconstitutional, saying it is difficult to precisely determine how certain rumors hurt "public interest" as the law stated.

The prosecution has a different approach to the latest controversy.

"The prosecution does not have legal basis to monitor private conversations on Kakao Talk. It is physically impossible to monitor everyday conversations," Prosecutor-General Kim Jin-tae said Tuesday.

Kim argued that the monitoring occurs only in cases of heavy crimes such as murder, drugs and human trafficking or rebellion, not in trivial offenses like defamation, which by law is not allowed.

Daum Kakao has already said it was shortening the saving period for chat records to less than three days from around one week.

With Daum Kakao officially pronouncing that it is committed to reject access to the records, the discord with state authorities and the political community isn't likely to subside anytime soon.

colin@yna.co.kr

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