[VIEWPOINT]How Google case affects KoreaThere is currently a heated debate over the agreement the international Internet search engine Google Inc. has made with the Chinese government: Google will restrict politically sensitive search words in return for allowing the company to operate a Chinese Google site, google.cn, in China. The Chinese government requested Google restrict such words as “Taiwanese independence,”“Tibetan independence,” “Tiananmen Square incident,” “Falun Gong,” “democracy” and “freedom.” Some are disappointed at the dual attitude of Google, which has emphasized free distribution of information and strongly opposed government censorship, and others criticize the company for blindly throwing away human rights for business interests.
Korean Internet companies feel confused as they watch the situation. Should Internet companies resist government censorship requests for the development of human rights in that country? Or is it okay to accept such requests as part of a localization strategy? Korean Internet companies that expand businesses to overseas markets are faced with the same problem.
Advancing into overseas markets is an important task for Korean Internet businesses. At the same time, Korean companies are faced with endless competition from foreign companies domestically. It is true that the world today is turning into a world without borders thanks to the Internet, but we also need to acknowledge that the culture, traditions and legal systems of each country are different from each other. There may be a difference in the degree of censorship, but all governments are sensitive about Internet search results, and they are all interested in supervising and censoring them. Internet search results are merely mechanical results, but the selective restriction of contents can be different between countries according to their cultural differences. Lewd articles and contents unsuitable for adolescents are restricted in Korea and the domain addresses from which such materials flow into Korea from overseas are registered on an interception list. The list is then distributed throughout the nation. As a result, some point out that Korean companies are inversely discriminated against because they are more restricted than foreign Internet companies.
Censorship and issuing certificates for the Internet is costly for companies as money goes into the task of building a censorship system and employing manpower for supervision. Excessive restrictions on top of that can lead to criticism and loss of users for going against the Internet philosophy of “free distribution of information.” Most Internet services function on the basis of voluntary participation of their users. If companies continuously restrict search results or regularly turn over user records to the government, not only will it damage the product value of the Internet service, but users will also be reluctant to use the product and eventually turn away from it.
Historically, the level of trust the media has enjoyed from the public has been comparatively high when the government was corrupt. This means that the people want more information when they have trouble trusting the government. If Chinese people grow more distrustful of their government, their need for information through the Internet will increase. If Google has decided to advance into China, knowing this situation, and has accepted the government’s condition, I think there is no reason for the company to be criticized. Even the almighty Google is a commercial profit-seeking company, and if it has decided not to give up the Chinese market, its decision this time could be part of an elaborate strategy to advance into the strongly closed Chinese market.
However, no matter how much a company pursues business profits, it needs to have basic management principles and ethical standards. A company opening branches overseas may not be able to turn down the requests of the country it has advanced into, but it should not cooperate or align itself with any violation of human rights.
Governments too will not be able to forever ignore the fundamental characteristic of the Internet, which is the free distribution of information, because of its necessity for domestic politics. In the end, the Internet cannot co-exist with such words as restriction and oppression.
The Google case has left the task of finding out what standards we have to set between the Internet’s characteristic of freedom of information distribution and the realistic necessity of government regulations.
* The writer is the secretary general of the Korea Internet Corporations Association. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Sung-ho