South Korea and the closed web

This article is long. Sorry. When I chose to move to South Korea, I was envied by a few. It wasn’t intense jealousy, but it was there. Dude, Korea! Your computer’s going to take off like a rocket, imagine that : the fastest Internet of the world! Well, no, actually, the fastest is in Hong-Kong. South Korea has the second fastest, and it’s really, really fast, there’s 4G even in the subway, perfect connection everywhere, the paradise of fast and cheap information:

South Koreans enjoy an average connection speed of 16.63 megabits per second. By contrast, the average United States internet surfer can expect speeds of 4.6 megabits per second.

(check here too for more) Better than the USA! Better than France (France doesn’t even rank in these dashboards….)! Yay! It’s beautiful, it’s shiny and it smells good! If only I had known.

1. Internet Explorer

The thing is, when you get a new PC, you use Internet Explorer to download another browser – in my case, Chrome. And then you forget about Internet Explorer. Unless you live in South Korea. It’s not really Internet Explorer that you must use, but a thing called Active X. As stated here:

Over time, anyone dealing with Korean web sites, or Korean software in general, will almost inevitably come across the Microsoft Active X fixation that South Korean programmers have become dependent upon, years after the rest of the world has moved on from that software development phase, roughly a decade ago. As such, often only Microsoft’s Internet Explorer can be used in visiting Korean web sites. Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, etc. will not work, since Active X requires Internet Explorer as a browser to effective use much of the functionality of South Korean web sites.

To know a bit more about how Active X works, here is a very good technical explanation of what is going on. You have no choice. If you want to check your bank account status on a computer, you must use Internet Explorer. Same goes for online shopping. The consequence? Hard to deal with if, like me, you have an allergy to Internet Explorer. Or if you own an Apple computer. Someday I’ll write about how I had to use 3 different computers, 2 of which were not mine, to download a certificate for internet banking… Go security! Security, which, by the way, is an enormous problem because of Active X. Surprisingly, there was recently a massive loss of data in South Korea. As this article goes : The personal data of 20 million South Koreans — or 40% of the country’s population — has been stolen, sparking outrage as worried consumers scramble to replace compromised credit cards (read more here). Thankfully, the problem is known, and it grew more important with the explosive BOOM of the smartphone business (let it be known that you have no existence if you don’t own one here). In 2006, Brian in Jeollanam-do noted on his blog:

Worldwide 62% of people use a version of Internet Explorer, according to those stats from Market Share, whereas 98% in Korea use IE, with 50% of the total using IE6. 

He also underlines, quoting an article from the JoongAng Daily which can’t be found anymore:

The number of smartphone users in Korea neared 1 million at the end of last year, with Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Omnia 2 gaining popularity. However, smartphone users are having trouble whenever they try to use mobile banking services or shopping sites, since the browsers designed for smartphones are not equipped to handle ActiveX.

But it’s not like Koreans aren’t aware of the situation they’re stuck in. Programmers moan a lot about having to prioritize building for IE, which for example means you can’t use some exciting languages, such as html5.

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 오후 3.38.21

Can we hope for a change? Will we finally see the disappearance of the dictature of IE in South Korea? This is what happened in 2010, according to this:

The country’s Financial Services Commission has scrapped a 1999 rule that required using ActiveX to verify shoppers’ IDs, effectively giving Microsoft a government-backed monopoly over business. 

Four years later, I can vouch for the fact that this has effectively changed nothing. I file for taxes on IE, I shop online on IE, even illegal downloading of cultural products must be done on IE. Anything involving a transaction needs to be done on the much hated Internet Explorer. And even the Korea Times, not really known for publishing much that would make Korea look bad, agrees with me:

Over 80 percent of the country’s Internet sites still use this technology, which is not only vulnerable to malicious code, but also damages consumers’ right to freely choose the Web browser they want.

Oh, and do you know where Active X comes from? This guy, called Ahn Cheol-Soo, whom you might have heard of during the last presidential elections in Korea because he was interested in getting himself a presidential seat, created it a while back. The company is called AhnLab (official site here, and wikipedia page here). It even makes applications so you can now have ActiveX on your phone! (yay)

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 오후 3.54.24

This “installed” button gives me shivers. And I’m not the only one… People are so bothered by it today that Ahn Cheol-Soo made it part of his campaign promises to remove Active X from the Korean Internet. What does that tell you? Nothing. Ahn didn’t make it and ActiveX is still here.

2. Search engines

Maybe you want to search for something? Anything? After all that’s what most of us use the Internet for. How does that work in Korea? According to, these are the top 10 visited websites in South Korea :   It wasn’t always like that. First of all, some giants of the web tried to enter the Korean market and left, with their tails between their legs. I am referring here to Yahoo, which had to leave South Korea after 15 years. But the real war of the browsers opposed two giants, namely Google and Naver. You might wonder what is Naver : while it might want to be described as a search engine, it really is the interface through which most Koreans learn how to use a computer. Naver makes choices for you, and tries to sell you things. I find it a very frustrating interface to use for searching. Imagine that you would like to find a building called 상상마당 (Sang Sang Ma Dang). Here is what you will find on Google :

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.17.09 PM

The map, the website for the place, a few images. If I want something more precise, I’ll have to be more precise with my search terms. Now, this is what happens when I do the same thing on Naver (for the sake of argument, I searched in English in Google, and in Korean in Naver):

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.16.54 PM

Juste look at that cluster! Why is it telling me the temperature? It’s showing me the top 10 search terms of the moment, It’s giving me a list of the concerts I can find in Sangsangmadang – it’s basically a huge amount of entry points, and virtually no exit point. Naver wants you to use it, and doesn’t want you to actually go on the websites. So. If I scroll a little bit, maybe I will find websites?

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.17.27 PM

What is happening there is that Naver gives me a few websites mentioning Sangsangmadang, and provides me with a link to see more websites. Then it gives me blog posts mentioning the place, and I also get the option to see more of these. Of course the differences between Google and Naver are more complicated than that. Of course their respective histories have led them to implement many different features in order to try and attract the Korean netizens. This is what we can read in 2007 :

Naver currently has a 77 percent share of all searches from within South Korea. follows with 10.8 percent, Yahoo with just 4.4 percent and Google with a tiny 1.7 percent of Korean Web searches.

This is what we can read in 2009 :

NHN ( dominates Korean search market, with 61.9% search share. Daum, the 2nd, got 19.7%, and Google, the 3rd, got only 7.3%. (few years back, Naver’s share over 70%, while google has 2-3%, so, changing a bit)

Sorry for the weird grammar in that person’s writing. It hurts me too. In any case, Kids learnt the Internet with Naver (and Daum and Cyworld and the Cafés, but these would warrant a huge article, which I shall write later). And Naver taught kids how the Internet was supposed to be. This segregation was made possible through language, of course. Since Google sucked at Korean and Naver sucked at English… You have it. And this is responsible for the cluster you see every time you go to an official (read – governmental) website. Let’s say hi to New York:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 2.56.23 PM

To Sydney:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 2.57.10 PM

To London:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 2.57.39 PM

To Paris:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 2.56.13 PM

To Seoul:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 2.56.00 PM

Unlike the other websites (Sydney’s is pretty, New York is efficient, London and Paris are a bit boring but at least you know where you are and what you’re doing there), Seoul’s is a pile of things in which you’re expected to find your own way. When you hover over the menu options, which do not seem too bad at first, you’re greeted for each of them with a bigger pile!

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 3.02.33 PM

And this is really only the first one. In the English version of the same site, this is what it looks like:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 3.07.48 PM

 Ah if you’re unlucky (which is not the case for this one specific website), you will click on one of these links, and nothing will happen. Try again – nothing happens. Sigh, open Internet Explorer, and click on your link.

3. Adult Sites

Let’s talk about happier things, shall we? Let’s have a look at entertainment. Specifically, adult entertainment. First, you should know that in South Korea, porn is illegal. That has many consequences on every day life, one of them being the extremely funny following statistic: South Koreans are the second biggest buyers of pornography in the world. The stat comes from a study made in 2006. Also found here. The avid consumption of pornographic materials, coupled with a lack of healthy communication about sex, translates in the frankly sleazy way a lot of idols are being sold to the public, in a pattern that has existed in Japan since the eighties. Those Japanese pop stars were called by a good friend of mine “soft porn material”, and he’s not the only one to have connected the dots. Here is what you can read in “Idols and celebrity in Japanese media culture”, in the essay called “Idols: desire in Japanese Consumer Capitalism“, by P.W. Galbraith:

While it may seem obvious that a fan might follow an idol and masturbate to pornography featuring different women, it is interesting that the image video offers what appears to be “soft-porn images” of the idol’s body, but nonetheless the idol maintains her pure (unspoiled) image.

Hmh. I don’t know that anyone has studied Korean idols under that light yet.

But because we must protect the children from the evils of online pornography (and video games, but that’s a story for another day), the South Korean government happily practices censorship. And because the South Korean government can’t possibly find all the pornography, some white knights sacrifice themselves for the cause. They are called the Nuri cops. They don’t make everyone happy, but they are convinced that they do what is best for the greater good. These people, housewives, students, IT workers, and others, do it for free. Is banning pornography legal? Well, according to the Sunday Morning Herald:

South Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but contains the caveat that such expression should neither “violate the honour or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics.”

Basically, that means that whatever you decide should not be authorized can be forbidden. And when you decide to do things for the good of the people, you end up having a discourse that could justify about anything:

An officer for the Ministry of Public Administration and Security said, “We are hopeful for the future of our youth, so in order to prevent the contamination of their minds, maintaining this monitoring effort is important – I appeal to all citizens to join us in this effort to block online pornography.”

Monitoring in order to prevent the contamination of young minds… That sort of line of thoughts can go in very dangerous directions, in my opinion. (From KoreaBang, “Korean Groups Declare War on Internet Pornography”.) As I suggested earlier, all of these good intentions have absolutely no effect on the consumption of pornography in South Korea, as proved by the business revenue, but they even can’t really destroy the local production of porn. This is an article about Korean porn (sadly, I had to do some google-fu because it was deleted for some reason). And last, but not least, I want to talk about sex toys. If you want to buy something from an American website when you live in Korea, you will find that said website won’t deliver to you, because of “a risk of confiscation in the customs”. Just like in Saudi Arabia. You can, however, buy whatever you want to buy in South Korea, but you must know that the prices are at least 70% higher. Definitely bleak. (I’d also like to mention here that the front page of an American store will show a great diversity of items, most of which are organized as follows: for him, for her, for couples, for lesbians, for gays. The front page of the Korean websites I’ve seen blasted enormous images of silicon vaginas and fake anuses in my face.)

In conclusion

There are many more things to be said about the Korean Internet, most of which concern the netizen’s attitude, whose violence (which sometimes translated in IRL actions) is a concern. But as for the shape of the Internet, these three points are the ones that feel the most foreign to a non-Korean user of the Korean Internet. Security, organization and adult materials exist in such a different manner that you may find yourself lost and frustrated. The good news? Korea is a high-tech country. It wants to go faster and higher. I can do so many things on the Internet that I couldn’t do in my home country. The next few years should keep showing great innovation, and hopefully, a bit of organization.


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