Kakao vows to protect customers from gov’t

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Kakao vows to protect customers from gov’t

Shaken by an exodus of users to other messenger programs that offer more privacy, Daum Kakao declared it will protect personal information no matter what and will not cooperate with Korean prosecutors - a defiant and desperate move that could pit the IT giant against authorities in the future.

A stern-faced Lee Sirgoo, co-CEO of Daum Kakao, appeared before reporters Monday night in an emergency press briefing to assert that his company has refused to cooperate with prosecutors in handing out private information since Oct. 7 and will continue to do so.

Lee said it is the company’s top priority to protect users’ privacy, even in the face of court-issued warrants for information.

In a sign of the possible controversy he is courting, the IT company co-chief said he will take responsibility for the company’s decision if it is in violation of the law.

Controversy over state monitoring of private conversations ignited following the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office announcement on Sept. 18 that it had established a new cyber investigation team intended to prevent cyber defamation and the spread of false information on the Internet.

That was followed by news earlier this month that authorities had used a warrant to tap Kakao chat records of Jeong Jin-u, the deputy leader of the left-wing Labor Party.

The prosecutors’ aggressive move came two days after President Park Geun-hye publicly expressed displeasure about the recent criticisms targeting her, calling them insults and saying they had crossed a line.

Daum Kakao acknowledged in a statement on its official blog on Oct. 8 that it had received 147 requests for user information with warrants from last year through the first half of this year. The company said it handed over information in 138 cases.

More than 400,000 users abandoned KakaoTalk for chat services they consider free from government snooping.

In response to Lee’s tough position yesterday, chief prosecutor Kim Jin-tae expressed his regret over the so-called cyber exodus seen in recent days and maintained that authorities are not engaging in wholescale cyber monitoring.

Kim said during a meeting with senior prosecutors yesterday that there is no legal basis to conduct real-time monitoring of private chats on KakaoTalk, and it isn’t physically possible for the authorities to monitor Kakao’s 26 million users.

Kim emphasized that prosecutors will only request information from IT companies when they are dealing with serious crimes. He emphasized that defamatory remarks on messenger programs are not subject to investigation.

“The prosecution will only look into chat records of suspects involved in serious crimes such as drugs and kidnapping after it gains warrants from courts.”

But he did not endorse Daum Kakao’s decision to not cooperate with prosecutors. Kim said it was unimaginable for a company to defy the law in a state governed by laws.

Choi Hyun-ho, a law professor at Chungbuk National University, said the messenger developer cannot defy prosecutors’ warrants to tap into chat records according to the law and noted that the authorities can force their way into collecting personal information when necessary.

“When there is a clash between one’s basic right and national security, it is an individual’s right that is subject to be limited,” he said. “In this case, the prosecutors can forcibly obtain information by dispatching investigators to unlock the data storage because no one is above law.”

One media outlet projected that close to 1.8 million users have abandoned Kakao over the past month. When asked by the Korea JoongAng Daily to verify that figure, the tech giant yesterday neither confirmed nor denied it.

“Just the notion that I can be monitored at any time by the government makes me feel like I am being invisibly shackled, even though I have done nothing wrong,” said Choi Hee-kwon, 25, a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Choi recently switched from KakaoTalk to the Germany-based messenger service Telegram.

The criticisms that President Park referred to as “insults” that “crossed a line” largely reference the government’s response to a ferry sinking on April 16 that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high school students.

Media reports say that prosecutors met officials from major IT companies such as Daum Kakao, Naver and Nate two days after Park’s remarks to discuss ways to remove content considered troublesome or defamatory by the authorities.

Prosecutors’ recent indictment of the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun’s former Seoul bureau chief on charges of defaming President Park in an article reinforced the notion that the authorities are going after posts critical of the government.

For Koreans, government surveillance over what’s being said and written is familiar from military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. The military government suppressed opinions critical of the authorities in the name of national security and spread fear among the public that one could be arrested for a chat during late-night drinking if it was critical of the government.

In the face of growing public jitters about state cyber monitoring, Daum Kakao, Naver and SK Communications are preparing to take a joint resolution to beef up the privacy level of personal information, according to the Korea Internet Business Association yesterday.

As part of their efforts, the companies will officially request revision of the pertinent laws and regulations.

“Internet companies acknowledge that public concern about surveillance of KakaoTalk is not merely a problem for Daum Kakao but rather an issue that applies to the whole Internet industry,” said Choi Sung-jin, secretary general of the Korea Internet Business Association (KIBA).

The three companies held meetings twice before the emergency press conference held by Daum Kakao on Monday.

The last meeting was attended by Daum Kakao Executive Director Lee Byung-sun, Naver Executive Director Yoon Young-chan and SK Communications Executive Director Kim Kyung-chul. Executives of the companies will continue to participate in the discussions.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, KIM JUNG-YOON [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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