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Gov’t faces furor over internet crackdown

Over 230,000 signed petition decrying the method KCC used
Feb 19,2019
The government is facing public uproar due to the decision by its top communications regulator last week to block hundreds of pornography and gambling sites.

As of Monday, over 230,000 citizens had signed a Blue House petition decrying the measure by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) on Feb. 11, which cut off access to a total of 895 foreign-based websites - most of them pornography and gambling sites. As the petition has exceeded 200,000 signatures, the Blue House will be required to respond, per one of President Moon Jae-in’s central public relations policies.

“[We] have enhanced the technical means to filter secure or indirect access to illegal content on foreign websites, which includes illegal pornography and gambling,” read a press release from the KCC that announced the ban Feb. 12.

The KCC said the objective was to prevent the circulation of illegal online material, such as revenge porn or hidden-camera footage, as well as such copyrighted materials as comics.

The original petition agreed with the goal, but said the method the KCC has taken contains the potential to infringe upon individual freedoms in ways that may spiral far beyond just adult content.

That method, popularly referred to as the “https” ban, uses a Server Name Indication (SNI) field filtering system to block users’ access to content on a certain server before it is encrypted.

Initially, the government’s preferred method of internet censorship was to block individual URL addresses containing flagged content. But once websites began to use encrypted protocols that bypassed this ban, authorities began to resort to Domain Name System (DNS) filtering, which blocks access to all websites using the same IP address as the flagged content.

But even the DNS ban could do little to block servers that used better encryption methods or floating IP addresses. As a response to such changes, the SNI field filtering method is able to block access to a certain server before it is even encrypted.

Unlike with the DNS ban, when a user tries to access a blocked page, they are not redirected to an online police notice. The page is instead blacked out altogether, and the user’s browser displays a connection error.

While recent attention on the circulation of illegal online pornography and sex crimes has spurred authorities to take a stronger stance on filtering online content, these newest measures toe a fine line between cracking down on such content and limiting freedom on the internet.

In multiple online forums, Korean web users have likened the government’s censorship to that of China’s, criticizing the authorities for limiting the freedom of consenting adults to view the content of their choice. Many say the ban will do little to actually reduce the sharing of illegal material, since users will always find ways to bypass the new filtering system.

The new censorship method could technically enable the government to monitor what content users have accessed online, according to digital analysts. In their official statement, the KCC denied the technology contains such surveillance elements.

Regardless of its potential to reduce illegal pornography, the controversy surrounding the new online ban has sparked a new debate in Korea concerning internet freedoms, particularly among men in their 20s and 30s, based on complaints online regarding the ban.

The independent watchdog Freedom House rated South Korea as only “Partly Free” in its Freedom of the Net report from 2018. The report said that despite having the world’s highest broadband and smartphone penetration rates, “service providers in the country continued blocking content deemed to violate the law or social norms” based on orders from regulators.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]