Fears of spying in cyberspaceThe term “cyber asylum” has become a new buzzword among people frequenting mobile messaging platforms for daily communication and business in Korea. And an increasing number of Korean smartphone and Internet users are migrating to foreign social network platforms over fears of spying by the Korean government and law enforcement.
A comment by President Park Geun-hye triggered the scare. In response to a rumor at her expense, she remarked that groundless slander in cyberspace had gotten out of control and demanded stronger action by the Justice Ministry and the prosecution.
The prosecution immediately acted and launched a cyber investigation team and reportedly warned tech companies that the spread of defamatory accusations would be strongly punished.
The warning soon raised alarms in cyberspace, and many users began to shun Kakao Talk, the most popular chat application in Korea. Instead, they jumped to overseas platforms, beyond local authorities’ reach. Telegram, which ranked around 100th place in Apple’s App Store for downloads in Korea, suddenly sprung to the top of the list. In just two weeks, Koreans users on the Berlin-based platform increased from 20,000 to 260,000.
Prosecutors strongly denied any censorship activities, but the seed had already been planted. The controversy has also spilled over to the political realm, and the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy in a briefing criticized the prosecution, while the ruling Saenuri Party said cyber security was necessary to promote a healthy Internet culture.It’s undeniable that rumors were running rampant in cyberspace. But the authorities acted excessively, without any respect for the nature of the Internet. Malignant and hostile slander is easier to catch in cyberspace because digital words and behavior can be traced and prosecuted if they cause harm.
But calling up tech companies to dole out harsh warnings clearly sends the wrong message. The state authority has already lost much of its public trust. Any attempt veering toward excess can cause misunderstandings. Over-supervision and investigative excess has already hurt the IT industry. Google in 2011 considered establishing a data center in Korea, but the plan was withdrawn because it feared surprise raids by prosecutors. For the IT industry, the protection of client information is the biggest concern.
Cyberspace has no borders. If users feel they are being watched by the authorities, they will relocate. The court also must be more discreet in approving information-related warrants.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 4, Page 30