Google jousts with South Korea’s ‘quirky’ Internet rules

Policies implemented to protect South Korean national security or even to protect youth from excessive computer gaming lead to poor software development and many frustrated users

By Eric Pfanner  /  NY Times NEWS Service

Wed, Oct 16, 2013 - Page 9

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.

Now the government of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is moving to ease some of the Internet regulations that previous administrations put in place. Park wants to encourage creativity in the South Korean high-technology industry, which is very good at developing hardware like smartphones and television sets but not as good at exporting software and services. Critics say the different rules that South Korean companies have to play by at home and abroad limit their ability to think in a worldly fashion.

Last month, the government promised to ease the restrictions on online mapping services. The National Geographic Information Institute, part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, said it would make an official English-language digital map available to Internet companies, beginning this month for companies based in South Korea. The ministry said it was changing its policy to help foreign Internet companies and to clear up uncertainties over South Korean place names.

The move comes at the same time as a new flare-up in a longstanding dispute over a group of islets between South Korea and Japan that are known variously as the Dokdo in South Korea, the Takeshima in Japan and the Liancourt Rocks in some other places. (The islands are either in the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, which is another naming dispute.) For Google and other foreign companies, there is a hitch. They will be permitted to use the map as of next year, on a case-by-case basis. Now, Google adapts its English-language maps of South Korea from the government’s Korean-language maps. Google is permitted to provide directions using public transit systems like the Seoul subway, because train and bus routes and schedules are available through public records.

However, Google says other sophisticated map enhancements, like driving directions, traffic information, three-dimensional modeling of cities and indoor floor plans of airports and shopping centers, require the company to process the data at its servers outside South Korea. This would constitute an export of the map data, which has been forbidden until now.

Google says the policy change announced by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport does not go far enough. That is because the scale of the new official, English-language map is limited to 1:25,000, which the company says is insufficient to provide details that Google Maps users take for granted elsewhere.

“Maps at the lower resolution don’t have accurate enough information to guide people and cars through intersections, sidewalks, bike lanes, pedestrian overpasses and many points of interest,” the company said in a statement.

Google maintains that the rules are unfair because domestic Internet companies like Naver are able to provide online navigation and other mapping services, even to users outside the country. That is because Naver’s servers are housed in South Korea. For many foreign visitors, though, Naver’s maps are of limited use, because they are available only in Korean.

“We just think any services should be carried out within the framework of the law,” Google said. “The same laws should apply to all providers of Web map services, domestic or foreign.”