South Korea is one of the world’s most digitally advanced countries. It has ubiquitous broadband, running at speeds that many Americans can only envy. Its Internet is also one of the most quirky in the world.
A curfew restricts school-age children from playing online games at night; adults wanting to do so need to provide their resident registration numbers to prove that they are of age.
Until last year, commenters on the Web were legally required to use their real names. A simple Web search in Korean can be a fruitless experience, because the operators of many sites, including some government ministries, bar search engines from indexing their pages.
Travelers who want to go from Gimpo International Airport to the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul cannot rely on Google Maps. Google Maps can provide directions only for public transport, not for driving, to any place in South Korea. Anyone crazy enough to try the journey on bicycle or on foot, directions for which Google Maps provides elsewhere, will be similarly stymied.
The highly regulated Internet comes as a surprise to many people, South Koreans included, because South Korea is a strong democracy with a vibrant economy seemingly ready for the digital information age. South Koreans were early adopters of Internet games and smartphones. It has world-beating electronics companies like Samsung and LG. However, the Internet is just different.
The South Korean government has its reasons, most of them well-intentioned. The curfew, for example, was put in place two years ago to deal with concerns about game addiction among teenagers.
South Korean security restrictions that were put in place more than half a century ago after the Korean War limit Google’s maps, the company says. The export of map data is barred, ostensibly to prevent it from falling into the hands of South Korea’s foe to the north, across the world’s most heavily fortified border. Google and other foreign Internet companies say the rule also prevents them from providing online mapping services, like navigation, that travelers have come to rely on in much of the rest of the world.
The Korea Communications Standards Commission, a regulatory panel, blocks material on the Web that it deems objectionable. This can include pornography, the production of which is technically illegal in South Korea.
“It’s ironic, in a country that is widely recognized for its advanced digital infrastructure, that there are so many restrictions on the Internet in [South] Korea,” said Kim Keechang, a professor at Korea University who is writing a book on Internet regulation in South Korea.
Foreign Internet companies say the country’s rules prevent them from competing against domestic rivals because they cannot provide the same services they do elsewhere. South Korea is one of the few major markets where Google is not the leading search engine. A South Korean rival, Naver, has the most users.
However, domestic criticism of the South Korean approach to Internet regulation is growing. Civil liberties advocates successfully challenged the rule requiring users of Internet discussion groups to provide their real names, verified by a national identity registration system. A court last year struck down the measure, which was introduced in 2007 to try to curb online bullying after a rash of suicides.