According to the April 26 White House statement, the South Korean government will be joining the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC). We, the signatories of this letter, welcome this decision. The FOC, established in 2011 with 13 countries, including the United States and the Netherlands, has now grown to include 37 member countries. Given South Korea’s exceptional Internet technology development and impressive connectivity (97.6% in 2021), ranking among the global leaders in this regard, the nation’s eagerness to join the FOC will send a timely, if not late, positive message for democratization efforts worldwide.
We would like to make an important request to the South Korean government prior to South Korea’s formal joining of the FOC. Unfortunately, there are several areas in which the South Korean government needs improvement to fully align with the FOC’s goals concerning internet freedom.
A country seeking membership in the FOC undergoes a rigorous evaluation process for membership eligibility, which includes a review of comments received from existing member countries and an assessment report conducted by the FOC Secretariat, based on the following specific requirements:
- Demonstrating respect for human rights online domestically, including as independently assessed by reports from civil society organizations, such as: the Freedom on the Net, Freedom in the World, and Freedom of the Press reports by Freedom House; the Global Information Society Watch Report (GISWatch) report published by APC and Hivos; the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of imprisoned journalists; and Privacy International’s stakeholder reports.
- The record of the applicant country’s actions in international and regional fora on the Internet, human rights, and press freedom issues, including as expressed in resolutions and statements.
- The degree to which the country takes a proactive role furthering Internet freedom in its foreign policy.
- Membership in good standing in other intergovernmental or multistakeholder initiatives focusing on democracy, transparency, or open government, including the Community of Democracies (CD) and the Open Government Partnership
The FOC has established the Coalition’s shared goal and values that its members commit to upholding and advancing in several documents including the Tallinn Agenda, which was adopted during the 4th FOC meeting held in Estonia in 2014, which states:
- Recalling our obligation to adopt and encourage policies and practices . . . that promote the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online, in particular freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information . . . in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the freedom of peaceful assembly and association,
- Noting with particular concern growing attempts to restrict democratic voices online, including journalists and other media actors as well as human rights defenders, through . . . censorship, hacking as well as through illicit filtering, blocking, monitoring and other repressive means
- Recognising the growing global concern about surveillance practices which may have a negative impact on human rights online, in particular the right to privacy, as set out in the article 17 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to freedom of expression,
- Reiterating the fundamental importance that non-discriminatory access to and accessibility of the Internet have for exercising the freedom to seek, receive and impart information,
We, the members of the FOC, decide to:
- Call upon governments to halt . . . censorship . . . and other repressive measures utilised to restrict freedom of expression and organisation online in contravention of international human rights obligations,
- Reaffirm support for an open and interoperable internet, noting that strong cyber security and secure and stable communication are critical to maintaining confidence and trust in the internet, and key to safeguarding human rights and realising the internet’s economic, social and cultural benefits,
- Call upon governments worldwide to promote transparency and independent, effective domestic oversight related to electronic surveillance, use of content take-down notices, limitations or restrictions on online content or user access and other similar measures, while committing ourselves to do the same,
- Commit to supporting digital literacy to empower Internet users to make informed decisions, promote their access to information and economic opportunities, and protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms with particular attention being paid to the challenges faced by persons and groups in a vulnerable position or who are subject to discrimination,
The South Korean government has imposed rigorous regulations on internet content, granting significant censorship powers to administrative bodies like the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), Korea Communications Commission (KCC), and National Election Commission (NEC). These bodies possess the authority to remove and block internet content based on broad standards. As a result of these regulations, more than 200,000 internet contents and sites are blocked annually. Additionally, Article 44(2) of the Act on the Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (Request for Deletion of Information) leads to the blocking of over 450,000 internet contents each year. This particular provision obligates internet providers to take action and block posts when someone claims that a post online violates their rights. The enforcement of such stringent internet regulations not only hampers the formation of public opinion in democratic societies by restricting the free flow of information but also opens the door for potential abuse by the government or politicians to manipulate online public opinion and suppress criticism against them.
Moreover, there are various restrictions on expression in South Korea, including Article 7 of the National Security Act, defamation and insult laws under the Criminal Act, and candidate slander laws of the Public Official Election Act. These regulations impose severe limitations on people’s freedom of expression. The consequences for violating these laws can be extreme, often resulting in imprisonment. Unfortunately, these penalties are frequently misused by individuals and entities with political and economic influence, such as governments, public figures, and corporations, to stifle criticism directed at them. Annually, more than 60,000 cases of defamation and insult are filed and prosecuted in South Korea. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that even truthful statements can be considered as defamation, creating a chilling effect that discourages victims from stepping forward and reporting abuses or participating in movements like the Me Too movement. This suppresses whistleblowing and further hinders the pursuit of justice in the country. In November 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the Korean government to abolish the truth defamation but no improvement has been made.
Nonetheless, the absence of an anti-discrimination law has led to a lack of in-depth discussions concerning the regulation of discriminatory behavior. Key questions remain unanswered, such as the types of discriminatory actions that require regulation, the identification of individuals or groups in need of protection from discrimination, and the grounds on which certain expressions should be regulated.
Since President Yoon’s inauguration, press freedom violations by the government have escalated, raising serious concerns. For instance, on November 10 of the previous year, MBC reporters were denied access to President Yoon’s presidential airplane for overseas trips, supposedly due to their alleged distorted coverage of diplomatic affairs. Moreover, government ministers have resorted to criminally persecuting journalists for defamation, signaling a troubling trend. Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon filed a criminal complaint against a Hankyoreh reporter for defamation, who alleged suspicions about his children during his confirmation hearing. Minister of Public Administration and Security Lee Sang-min is equally guilty in this regard, having filed a criminal defamation complaint against a Hankyoreh reporter who, during his confirmation hearing, brought to light a controversy over his involvement in a bribery case during his tenure as a lawyer. These cases exemplify how ministers heading state institutions have seemingly exploited the legal system to silence public criticism of their performance and character, raising serious questions about transparency and accountability.
Intelligence agencies and investigative bodies’ illegal wiretapping, and infringements of secrecy of communication, have continuously occurred. This is because there is no sufficient human rights-based and judicial control mechanism on wiretapping and communication surveillance. In 2018, the Constitutional Court declared constitutional nonconformity of real-time location tracking and cell tower searches by investigative agencies for being authorized merely on “need for investigation”(2012Hun-Ma538). In the same year, the Court also ruled the National Intelligence Service’s packet surveillance methods as unconstitutional for lacking a safeguard against abuse of power relative to the breadth of the surveillance(2016Hun-Ma263). Following the decisions, the National Assembly amended the Protection of Communication Secrets Act in March 2020. However, such changes did not properly reflect the spirit of the Constitutional Court’s earlier ruling. In addition, “communication data”, collected to identify subscribers at the initial stages of an investigation, is protected by privacy and yet collection of such data is not controlled by the court and can be obtained if merely deemed ‘relevant to an investigation’. As a result, over 5,000,000 cases of such communication data are collected by investigative agencies every year. Therefore, in November 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the government to “provide subscriber data only where there is a warrant,” but this recommendation is yet to be followed. The provision of location information from cell towers and communication data is a grave infringement on privacy rights. The government should amend the Protection of Communication Secrets Act in order to strengthen requirements for wiretapping and metadata acquisition, implement safeguards for preventing abuses, and improve notifications to the person being surveilled. In addition, the government should amend relevant laws in order to ensure that subscriber information is provided only when there is a warrant present or abolish Article 83 (3) of the Telecommunications Business Act.
Also, currently a pending bill proposed to enforce network usage fees, introduces the concept of a “fee for service of internet access,” potentially undermining the principles of net neutrality. Net neutrality has become a fundamental norm, preventing ISPs, such as telecommunication companies, from abusing their power and ensuring equal access to the decentralized nature of the internet for all individuals, as it was originally intended. If ISPs start imposing monetary or non-monetary conditions on data delivery, the internet risks becoming a centralized communication platform akin to telephones, broadcasting systems, or newspapers. This shift would greatly curtail the freedom of expression that the internet currently provides. It’s worth noting that South Korea already has the “Sender pay policy,” also known as the “SPNP Interconnection Rule,” which mandates the ISPs exchanging data traffic to charge the net sending party. Essentially, South Korea already has a network usage fee rule in place. As a result, the internet access fee has been soaring, and some ISPs are avoiding popular content, which, in turn, harms individuals’ freedom of expression. In summary, the proposed bill could exacerbate the existing issues and pose further threats to net neutrality and freedom of expression on the internet.
According to Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2022” report on South Korea, which the FOC utilizes as a source to assess the eligibility of countries seeking membership, South Korea’s Internet freedom rating received a score of 67 out of 100, classifying it as Partly Free. The report highlights various issues of concern in the country’s online landscape. For instance, the report cited South Korea’s lack of high scores as a reason for the National Assembly expanding service providers’ website suspension requirement. Additionally, punitive damages have been ordered against internet service providers accused of publishing false information. Proposed or passed legislation has also raised concerns about potential undermining of net neutrality. Furthermore, the report revealed allegations of illegal surveillance conducted by law enforcement agencies targeting journalists, politicians, and their families. The government authorities were also reported to have blocked North Korea-related websites and removed posts, raising issues of information control. In addition, the report pointed out that thousands of users have faced defamations and insult lawsuits over their online statements, while instances of sexual harassment and online abuse against women have become more pervasive.
Also, the “Republic of Korea 2022 Human Rights Report,” issued by the US Department of State, also criticized defamation prosecutions initiated by politicians, including President Yoon and Justice Minister Dong-hoon Han, against reporters, adding to the growing concerns surrounding freedom of expression in South Korea.
President Yoon emphasized during his presidential candidacy that the foundation of democracy lies in the freedom of expression. We implore the South Korean Government to revisit the core principles with which he began his journey and thoroughly review the government’s policies on internet freedom and freedom of expression. It is crucial that South Korea aligns with international human rights standards to qualify as a member country in the FOC.
We also implore FOC that it earnestly requests the South Korean government to address the issues raised above, ensuring that the participation of the Republic of Korea enhances the values and ideals upheld by the Coalition.
Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID) (USA)
Christian Coalition on Media (South Korea)
Digital Woman Uganda -DWU (Uganda)
Eurasian Digital Foundation (Qazaqstan)
Gambia Press Union (The Gambia)
IPLeft (South Korea)
Joint Committee on the Freedom of Expression and Countering Media Suppression (South Korea)
Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet (South Korea)
Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
Media Reform (South Korea)
Organization of the Justice Campaign- OJC
Open Net (South Korea)
People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (South Korea)
Sassoufit collective (Republic of the Congo)
The Center for Freedom of Information and Transparent Society (South Korea)
Transitional Justice Working Group (South Korea)
Zaina Foundation (Tanzania)