Open Observatory Detects Censorship in Korea

by | Oct 27, 2016 | Free Speech, Open Blog | 0 comments

According to recent tests run by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a Tor project that aids in detecting censorship and surveillance on the Internet, several websites related to pornography, gambling, and North Korea are blocked in South Korea. OONI’s metrics give further insight into the size and scope of South Korean censorship practices and provide another opportunity to call for a free and open internet, Open Net reports.

From the list of websites tested, the majority of blocked websites fall into the categories of pornography and gambling-related websites.1 These findings match those in the 2015 Korea Internet Transparency Report, which shows a steep yearly rise in the amount of takedown requests relating to obscenity – almost 50,000 in 2014. Though KCSC, Korea’s internet censoring body, is an administrative entity, it makes legal decisions as to what content is “obscene” and therefore illegal. KCSC has blocked sites with legitimate claims to artistic or educational value – factors that would exempt them from obscenity charges – without any means for the content owners to appeal. These decisions chill speech, ignoring former UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression Frank La Rue’s warning that censorship should never be delegated to a private entity. KCSC can also censor “harmful content,” such as excessive cursing or violence.2 Given the extent of takedown requests, KCSC’s capacity for blocking content should be carefully watched.

The OONI findings also confirm the blocking of several North Korea-related websites. KCSC censors websites under National Security Law Article 7 which criminalizes speech that “praises North Korean activities.” While the Supreme Court has held that speech must “endanger the security of the nation” to be caught under the article, KCSC often applies this article to posts that praise the ruling family or even simple quotations from North Korean newspapers.

KCSC’s broad interpretation illegitimately blocks websites with journalistic value, such as the blocked news site, North Korea Tech, still blocked as of 25 October 2016. KCSC’s block of websites that use North Korean materials in the interest of news reporting violates free speech and the public’s right to information. To restore access, Open Net Korea has filed a lawsuit against the KCSC.

In many cases of website blocking, KCSC issues a non-binding “corrective request” to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Though ISPs are under no legal obligation to comply, when it comes to blocking overseas sites, ISPs have a 100% compliance rate. In effect, these “corrective requests” avoid due process and amount to de facto censorship of content. According to the Korea Internet Transparency Report, these government takedown requests are increasing: There were more than double the amount of takedown requests in 2014 compared to 2011.

De facto censorship of websites is just one of many issues facing Korean internet users today: Takedown requests from government officials on lawful, but critical online postings and lackluster safe harbor laws for intermediaries are also cause for concern. Internet censorship chills the free flow of information, curtails freedom of expression and restricts the people’s right to know. Open Net Korea calls on the Korean government to follow the Manila Principles when it intends to restrict access to content. These principles include affording due process to the original posters and complying with tests of necessity and proportionality when issuing a takedown request.


1Testing began on 21 August 2016. A full list of the websites tested, the test dates, and the test types can be found here.

2KCSC’s administrative censorship is especially problematic because its statutory mandate is even broader than taking down illegal information:  It is empowered to take content down when it is “necessary to nurture sound communication ethics” (Article 21 Item 4 of the Korean Communication Commission Establishment Act).


This posting was written by Dan Bateyko, a Thomas J. Watson Fellow and Intern Staff at Open Net Korea. 

To learn more about OONI and how you can run your own probe to help measure global internet censorship, surveillance, and traffic manipulation, visit them at

For more information on Korean internet censorship and surveillance, please see the Korea Internet Transparency Report.


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