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As South Korean government fetters online speech, critics fear chilling effects

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The South Korean government has increasingly monitored online activity, blocking both North Korean propaganda and internal political criticism.

korea web
korea web

South Korea is one of the world's most internet-friendly countries, topping the global charts for connectivity speeds. But The New York Times reports that what citizens can say online is much more limited. South Korea has always had restrictions on speech, but since President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008, the amount of online posts being removed or blocked has climbed. According to the Times, 15,000 pages were requested blocked in 2008, a number that had risen to 53,000 in 2011; other sources place that number even higher. The administration has also pursued charges against people who post what it sees as North Korean propaganda or — allegedly — criticism of the South Korean government.

In one case, a man faces up to seven years in jail for satirically retweeting a North Korean government message; in another, a teenager was indicted for sending text messages urging others to cut class and protest a decision to import American beef, though he was later acquitted. More commonly, posts are removed or accounts blocked for what the state calls "excessive insults, the spreading of false rumors, and defamation." One Twitter user says this extended to his handle, which was blocked because it translated to "Lee Myung-bak bastard." Song Jin-yong, the user in question, complained that "the government says I cannot even choose my own Twitter ID."

As a result, South Korea was listed by Reporters Without Borders as "under surveillance" in its annual internet freedom report, both for blocking North Korean propaganda with increasing stringency and for heavily monitoring general political comments. Inside the country, activists worry that locking down social media will remove a major venue of speech in a country that instituted democratic reforms less than 30 years ago after mass protests. "They are burning down an entire house under the pretext of killing a few fleas," complained one blogger. While President Lee's appointed internet regulation board says it hopes to become more transparent, many still see these policies as paternalistic at best.