“Is Internet Censorship Compatible with Democracy?”

It’s quiet in Seoul. Nobody seems to know whether we should be heading for the hills, or going back to work as usual. One thing Miss Jiwaku commented to me is that the quiet itself is scary. After all, when the media has been quiet in the past, it wasn’t always because there was no news. Probably every expat in Korea has heard stories of how news was controlled by the government back in the bad old days, and probably everyone who reads my blog knows that the status of censorship and control of online exchanges in Korea is, well, very very much an issue here, as the controls are much more than is tolerated in other democracies.

I’m not suggesting that the news is being especially controlled at this particular moment–not more than by the simple (and sensible) non-disclosure of strategic information we’d expect in any government–but what I’m talking about here is a deeply embedded and generalized distrust of the media and of the government, a distrust of the sort that comes up all the time and isn’t helped by policies like the one that forced Youtube to close comments and uploading for users signed in under “Korea” rather than abide by the Real Name policy. One has to wonder how anyone could be shocked by the way rumors spread here, given that many people feel the only people you can really trust are the ones you know personally.

In the long term, how does this affect the polity? One can ask: “Is internet censorship compatible with democracy?” One Fish at Yale would say, no it isn’t. Not with the kind of democracy you’d want to live in, anyway.

That is, Eric S. Fish, and his paper on the subject is here. It contains a pretty good overview of how South Korea ended up with such an illiberal tradition and establishment when it comes to censorship. I’m not sure I trust some of his conclusions, but I think  he sums a lot of the status quo pretty well and pretty convincingly.

Basically? Dictatorship-era controls were maintained during the transition to democracy and calcified early, making reform difficult thereafter. I am not sure I buy there was as much openness to reform on the Korean left as he seems to suggest, but he is certainly correct that the Right has long been eager to extend control.

Anyway, it reminds me of something B.R. Myers said about North Korean propaganda: that it is the kind of propaganda that one would expect to be produced by fascists who don’t quite grasp Stalinism; sometimes, I feel something vaguely similar about the kind of democracy Korea is “developing” and, interestingly, on page 50-51 of the article, Fish mentions something that gives this a name and specifies it as a Korean innovation:

South Korea is in many ways a model democracy. It holds free and fair elections, its citizens enjoy liberty of conscience and public protest, and public support for democratic governance is deep and widespread. In a 2003 survey, South Koreans showed a high rate of support for democracy, and the highest rate of rejection of authoritarianism of any East Asian country. South Korea is also one of the most wired countries in the world. Over 77.1 percent of its population (and virtually 100% of younger people) use the Internet regularly, and more than 94 percent of its households have high-speed Internet service. Yet in spite of the success of democracy in Korea and the importance of online communications to its citizens’ lives, the Korean government extensively censors the Internet.

Many of the laws that provide a mandate for this censorship were written in the 1990s, while others have their origins in pre-democratic Korea. They impose broad restrictions on expression in the areas of obscenity, national security threats, threats to public order, and political debate. Though controversial, they have endured through governments of both the Left and the Right. Some scholars explain their persistence by reference to recurrent defects in South Korean politics, including regionalism, ideological polarization, corruption, weak political parties, and personalistic rule by presidents. Regardless of the explanation, commentators and scholars interpret the continued existence of these laws in two ways – some see them as holdovers from Korea’s authoritarian past that will fall as its democratic institutions strengthen, while others see them as evidence that South Korea is developing a new model of illiberal democracy in which the organs of the State will extensively dictate what individuals and civil society groups may or may not say. The future development of South Korea’s Internet censorship infrastructure will help determine which of these views is more accurate, and thereby the type of democracy that South Korea will become.

Of course, the two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Fish’s concluding remarks do inspire a little hope, and incidentally remind me of a thought I’d often had: what Korea needs most desperately is a major Korea-focused internet portal operated from outside Korea, and thus exempt from all the strict content-control laws, free to offer the same sort of workarounds that Youtube has instituted for Korean users, and so on. It would never work to launch a site like this right off the bat, of course, and I’m afraid it’s a bit late in the game to launch one at all: but maybe if someone opened up a site and popularized it, and then got aggressive in defending freedoms once it was already popular, I think it would be very, very interesting to see what would happen if it got blocked. I suspect people would be very angry, if the site were popular already. I wonder what kind of international outcry might develop. I wonder if, generationally, some gravitation to sites hosted abroad might happen, forcing other sites to fight top-down control for their own (economic) good.

Which is enough to make me wish such a site had been established back in the days when the Korean internet was not yet locked up with the few portals that now dominate.

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