Supreme Court orders telecoms to open books

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Supreme Court orders telecoms to open books

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered telecom companies to be more transparent on their costs and billing systems - which could lead to lower monthly phone bills.

The highest court upheld a ruling by a local high court, saying, “The people’s right to know is guaranteed by the Constitution and a public institution asked by the people to disclose information should follow unless there is a reason not to.”

The ruling comes seven years after the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy filed a suit against the Korea Communications Commission, the telecom watchdog that later merged with the Ministry of Science and ICT, to urge three mobile carriers - SK Telecom, KT and LG U+ - to publicly share documents on profits and losses as well as business-related data and more detailed financial statements.

The civic group initially asked the commission to open up the raw cost data of mobile services on the grounds that carriers make excessive profits in comparison to the size of their investment. The KCC rejected that request, citing the need to keep confidential “a number of business-related secrets.”

The data set for disclosure is confined to the period between 2005 and 2011, when mobile networks ran on 2G and 3G technology and not the current 4G, or long-term evolution technology.

The highest court’s ruling is notable because it concluded that the telecoms’ role in providing public value comes before private enterprises’ right to protect their confidential business information.

“We will consider the Supreme Court’s ruling an opportunity to re-recognize the public benefit importance of telecom services and make further efforts to lower telecom fees,” said the ministry in a statement. “We will try to make public related information transparent should a similar request be filed in the future.”

Welcoming the ruling, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said it would imminently ask the government to disclose current raw cost data for mobile operators - plans based on LTE - arguing once again that they are making “enormous profits” out of monthly phone bills.

“The ruling has immensely upgraded the public nature of mobile services,” said Ahn Jin-gul, director of the civic group, in a press conference. “It also means services that have a great impact should be subjected to enforced social intervention and control.”

The telecom companies say they do not have plans to comply with the demand to reduce monthly phone bills.

“It’s a shame that confidential business information is being exposed to the public,” said an SK Telecom spokesman. “Disclosing the raw cost data is irrelevant to fee reduction.”

Cheaper monthly phone bills was one of President Moon Jae-in’s campaign pledges.

At the government’s request, the carriers have already raised the discount ceiling on monthly phone bills on long-term subscription plans from 20 percent to 25 percent.

Telecom operators fear their profitability being eroded when they are about to invest heavily on the next-generation 5G network, which will be commercialized early next year.

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