You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In South Korea, Activists Say Transparency Must Catch Up to Technology

BY Sam Petulla | Friday, February 22 2013

Seoul at night (credit: Sam Petulla)

Investigative journalists get a lot of strange assignments, but in 2008 Kim Yong-jin started getting ones that made a terrible kind of sense.

An investigative journalist for the Korean Broadcasting System, the largest television broadcast network in South Korea and a beneficiary of government largesse, Kim began investigating ministry leadership choices by the administration of the newly elected conservative president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak. Shortly after, he received a new assignment — a demotion from investigative team leader to regular team member. A month later, he was reassigned to a smaller bureau in a city hours from Seoul and told to pack his things. His colleagues took this as a message not to pry too hard.

Kim's plight has become familiar to many Korean journalists, who have complained that the government has packed the top echelons of news media with government loyalists.

Kim went on to help found the Center for Freedom of Information, an advocacy organization to push for open government and freedom of speech for journalists and advocates.

South Korea is one of the most networked societies in the world, boasting globe-leading levels of broadband speed and penetration. Video gaming is a competitive sport here. Yet its civilian government is barely 20 years old — in 1992, Kim Young-sam became the first democratically elected president from outside a military ruling class — and watchdogs complain the current president's administration is clamping down on press freedom to keep up appearances at the cost of accountability.

This presents people like Kim Yong-jin with a unique challenge. Almost from scratch, they are building a new civil society infrastructure in the Internet age.

"The 'Where did my tax dollars go?' organization — this we don't have," said Sungsoo Hwang, assistant professor of public administration at Yeungnam University.

Only recently have these issues seemed to gain some traction in South Korea's public sphere.

In the 2000s, South Korea concentrated on expanding its role as a global economic power, famously building up exporters like Hyundai, LG and Samsung. At the same time, it raced ahead in digitizing its government and increasing its bandwidth and mobile penetration, rising to the top of the UN's e-government metrics in a 2008 survey. The country enjoyed strong GDP and job growth even as vestiges of the former patriarchal government system, which curbed online rights along with other aspects of freedom of expression, remained intact.

But over the past year, in the wake of clashes over freedom of speech online, copyright, and open standards, a small NGO industry has emerged dedicated to issues relevant to technology, transparency, and freedom of expression.

In a prominent case this fall, a man was indicted for violating a national security law by retweeting from a North Korean Twitter account. He received a 10-month suspended sentence.

This is of a piece with a "rising tide of Internet censorship in South Korea," writes the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The seeming disconnect is at least partly rooted in South Korea'ss struggle to manage the contradictions in eagerly embracing the Web as one way to catch up with the world's top economies, while clinging to a patriarchal and somewhat puritanical past," writes The New York Times' Choe Sang-Hun.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the free culture movement has been the seed ground for Korea's emerging battle over online speech and transparency. Creative Commons Korea, an outgrowth of the Creative Commons initiative co-founded by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, contributed to the fight by translating "Open Government," the collection of essays published by O'Reilly Media, into Korean in February, 2012.

This provided a touch point for many ideas already proliferating in the country about how to apply technological innovation to government. It also served as the impetus for a series of events that included talks by big-name open government and technology leaders from abroad, such as the Cardozo School of Law professor and former White House adviser Susan Crawford, who CC Korea reached out to last September and hosted for a panel this January.

CC Korea also had a hand in creating Codenamu, a civic hacking group that has partnered with the international Creative Commons organization and worked with Ushahidi. With Seoul's mayor, Park Won-soon, the group staged hackathons and camps last July to spark the interest of tech-savvy young Koreans in exploring what they can do if given access to information about government in a machine-readable format

"People have started to want to make innovation within the government area in the same way that they saw it in other fields," said Jay Yoon, a regional judge and Korea Creative Common's project lead.

Google has also joined in efforts to open the South Korean government. The Google-supported OpenWeb Foundation was created by Korea University professor Park Kyung-sin and Keechang Kim, two advocates with their own free-expression pedigrees. Park was recently indicted on charges of obscenity after posting photos of male genitalia on his blog while he was serving as commissioner of the Korea Communications Standards Commission, which has the authority to delete online content. Kim, a University of Chicago Law School graduate, brought net neutrality to national attention in 2006 when the government attempted to mandate all financial transactions be conducted using Internet Explorer, resulting in a 99 percent adoption rate of the browser by Koreans. He sued the company authenticating the transactions, arguing that because the requirement was state-sponsored, it was illegal to play favorites among browsers.  OpenWeb will try to fill in some of the gaps in accountability and lack of support for free speech, fair copyright and patent law.

"The Internet environment in Korea could have been better and should be improved toward ensuring the openness and the global standards so that the country can benefit from it for users and the industry,” Google said in a statement, explaining its support for OpenWeb.

Google has also clashed for years with the South Korean government over privacy, resulting in the suspension of YouTube availability inside the country for four years.

One of OpenWeb's top priorities is a notice and takedown copyright infringement system. At the moment, copyright request complaints can be made directly to hosts and network operators, which exercise proprietary judgment over whether to respond. Kim says companies and high-level individuals frequently complain, wrapping political censorship in the banner of intellectual property protection.

Even when the law is on transparency's side, access can be difficult. Jeon Jin-han, Kim Yong-jin's cofounder at the Center for Freedom of Information, explains that South Korea's freedom of information law mandates that the government respond to requests within 10 days.

But bureaucratic red tape creates ways for the government to opt-out of replying. What's more, Jeon says, the data the government keeps is often incomplete or in the wrong place. And then there are cases like Kim's, where professional misfortune immediately follows exercising the right to access information.

Technology and politics are colliding in South Korean civil society, and the results can be unexpected. Jeon's new job is an example. He originally joined PSPD, the large South Korean progressive organization, and found himself working on access when they assigned it to him temporarily.

Now, he travels to Beijing to teach young Chinese what he experienced and the ways he has made progress at opening the Korean government. He is working to create videos to post to YouTube and distribute in high schools with basic information about the laws of asking the government for information or the groups programming government data into civic apps. “I started to find it very important,” he said.

In the mean time, he waits for civil servants working in governments’ attitudes to catch up with his own. “The technology advanced so fast,” he said. “Government attitudes don’t change as fast.”

Correction, February 24, 2014: The article has been corrected to state that the nude photos Professor Park Kyung-sin posted online were of someone else and not of himself.

Sam Petulla is a journalist based in New York City.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.