About two years ago, I had a long argument with a friend of mine who’s a computer techie and has been since the days of COBAL and FORTRAN over whether or not it was possible to censor the net. I was not then and am not now anything remotely resembling a techie but it seemed to me that it wasn’t all that hard to envision a computer program that could identify certain sites by keywords or some other profiling mechanism and shut them down. I said I would expect an authoritarian govt, ours perhaps, to take the technology she saw as ultimately freeing precisely because it was impossible to control and use it to do just that–control the flow of information. ‘There’s too much of it,’ she said. ‘It’s too scattered in too many places. No govt will ever be able to stop even part of it.’
Well, I now know we were both right. Unfortunately, I was more right than she was. In a world increasingly run by authoritarians, pessimism is a reliable predictor of events.
Nick at Net Politik posts a letter from a Korean blogger named Kevin Kim. The South Korean govt has shut down access to Blogspot, Moveable Type, and other blogging services to South Koreans. All South Koreans. Here’s the text of the entire letter he sent out to help make people aware of the situation.
Fellow blogger,I am sending this message to the bloggers on my blogroll (and a few other folks) in the hopes that some of you will print this, or at least find it interesting enough for comment. I’m not usually the type to distribute such messages, but I felt this was important enough to risk disturbing you.
As some of you may already know, a wing of the South Korean government, the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC), is currently clamping down on a variety of blogging service providers and other websites. The government is attempting to control access to video of the recent Kim Sun-il beheading, ostensibly because the video will have a destabilizing influence. (I haven’t seen the video.)
Many Western expat bloggers in Korea are in an uproar; others, myself included, are largely unsurprised: South Korea has not come far out of the shadow of its military dictatorship past. My own response to this censorship is not so much anger as amusement, because the situation represents an intellectual challenge as well as a chance to fight for freedom of expression. Perhaps even to fight for freedom, period.
South Korea is a rapidly evolving country, but in many ways it remains the Hermit Kingdom. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, the people are on occasion unable to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them. This country is, for example, in massive denial about the atrocities perpetrated in North Korea, and, as with many Americans, is in denial about the realities of Islamic terrorism, whose roots extend chronologically backward far beyond the lifetime of the Bush Administration. This cultural tendency toward denial (and overreaction) at least partially explains the Korean government’s move to censor so many sites.
The fact that the current administration, led by President Noh Mu-hyon, is supposedly “liberal”-leaning makes this censorship more ironic. It also fuels propagandistic conservative arguments that liberals are, at heart, closet totalitarians. I find this to be a specious caricature of the liberal position (I consider myself neither liberal nor conservative), but to the extent that Koreans are concerned about what image they project to the world, it is legitimate for them to worry over whether they are currently playing into stereotype: South Korea is going to be associated with other violators of human rights, such as China.
Of the many hypocrisies associated with the decision to censor, the central one is that no strong governmental measures were taken to suppress the distribution of the previous beheading videos (Nick Berg et al.). This, too, fuels the suspicion that Koreans are selfish or, to use their own proverbial image, “a frog in a well”– radically blinkered in perspective, collectively unable to empathize with the sufferings of non-Koreans, but overly sensitive to their own suffering.
I am writing this letter not primarily to criticize all Koreans (I’m ethnically half-Korean, and an American citizen), nor to express a generalized condemnation of Korean culture. As is true anywhere else, this culture has its merits and demerits, and overall, I’m enjoying my time here. No, my purpose is more specific: to cause the South Korean government as much embarrassment as possible, and perhaps to motivate Korean citizens to engage in some much-needed introspection.
To this end, I need the blogosphere’s help, and this letter needs wide distribution (you may receive other letters from different bloggers, so be prepared!). I hope you’ll see fit to publish this letter on your site, and/or to distribute it to concerned parties: censorship in a supposedly democratic society simply cannot stand. The best and quickest way to persuade the South Korean government to back down from its current position is to make it lose face in the eyes of the world. This can only happen through a determined (and civilized!) campaign to expose the government’s hypocrisy and to cause Korean citizens to rethink their own narrow-mindedness.
We can debate all we want about “root causes” with regard to Islamic terrorism, Muslim rage, and all the rest, but for me, it’s much more constructive to proceed empirically and with an eye to the future. Like it or not, what we see today is that Korea is inextricably linked with Iraq issues, and with issues of Islamic fundamentalism. Koreans, however, may need some persuading that this is in fact the case– that we all need to stand together as allies against a common enemy.
If you are interested in giving the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture a piece of your mind (or if you’re a reporter who would like to contact them for further information), please email the MIC at:
(Blogspot is currently blocked in Korea, along with other providers; please go to Unipeak.com and type my URL into the search window to view my blog.)
PS: To send me an email, please type “hairy chasms” in the subject line to avoid being trashed by my custom-made spam filter.
PPS: Much better blogs than mine have been covering this issue, offering news updates and heartfelt commentary. To start you off, visit:
Here as well, Unipeak is the way to go if you’re in Korea and unable to view the above blogs. People in the States should, in theory, have no problems accessing these sites, which all continue to be updated.
PPPS: This email is being cc’ed to the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture. Please note that other bloggers are writing about the Korean government’s creation of a task force that will presumably fight internet terror. I and others have an idea that this task force will serve a different purpose. If this is what South Korea’s new “aligning with the PRC” is all about, then there’s reason to worry for the future.
China has likewise engaged recently in episodic and targeted net censorship, shutting off access not just to blogging websites but to university, political, and business websites that they see as ‘de-stabilizing’. I don’t have to tell you that what China can do, America can do better. I also don’t have to tell you that there are people in this country–the AG, for instance–who would have no qualms whatsoever about unplugging anti-Bush, anti-war, and pro-choice sites if he thought he could get away with it.
The good news is that the SK bloggers are still allowed–‘allowed’, mind–to post, though who knows how long that will last? If Kim and other SK bloggers succeed in embarassing their govt sufficiently, the next step is even simpler than the first: shut down any international net traffic originating from SK that isn’t business-oriented.
Kevin has given us a peek at the potential future of the net and its astounding capacity to let people talk to each other almost face-to-face regardless of their geographic or political separations. It is possible, after all, for a govt to control even this enormous and enormously complex resource. We–all of us–could be out of business in a matter of hours if the president ordered it, say, as a matter of ‘national security’. The net could be restricted using any parameters the govt wished to use, just as SK is doing. There is nothing in place to stop them. Enterprising techies might be able to find ways around the blocks, but if they did they would be facing arrest.
So to my friend and to anyone else who cares about this little but promising playground and political/social/cultural nest of ours, I say make this an issue. Go to the websites on Kim’s list, leave supportive messages, email the MIC. Remember: South Korea today; us tomorrow. The technology is there, the will is there, all that’s missing is the certainty that nobody cares. Once they’re sure of that, we’re history. Show them we care. Show them, as Kevin said, that ‘censorship in a supposedly democratic society simply cannot stand.’ Make the price too high.
One thing about right-wingers: they know when they’re paying too much.