Rather than submit to new Korean law, YouTube turns off user uploads

In the midst of a Draconian new South Korean law passed April 1 that could force some ISPs to enable lawmakers to suspend their customers' Internet accounts or face fines, Google's YouTube division has turned off some features that could, if misused under the new law, land its customers in prison.

The South Korean National Assembly narrowly passed a sweeping new law whose purpose was to create a system of accountability for the nation's Internet users. While ostensibly the new law is designed to discourage piracy, Korean journalists such as Korea Times' Kim Tong-hyung provide evidence that the law's true purpose may be to enable government authorities to keep tabs on all kinds of online behavior, including political and social networking.

The new law, whose translated bill title was the Orwellian sounding "Comprehensive Measures for Information Protection on the Internet," literally makes it a crime for someone to post defamatory information against another person, should that person register a complaint. In order to make the law workable, the country is instituting a "real-names" login system for all its ISPs, in an attempt to create some kind of audit trail leading every kind of transaction back to a traceable source. All this, ostensibly, in the name of protecting piracy.

The English-language Korean news provider The Hankyoreh quotes the Internet division chief for the Korea Communications Commission, Lim Cha-shik, as heralding the law's passage as a way to calm citizens' fears "about an increase in the disadvantages associated with Internet use, such as personal information leaks and the spread of harmful information."

Rather than find itself in the middle of a future political and civil rights debacle with another Southeast Asian nation, Google yesterday decided it would suspend the ability for its Korean users to upload any videos, or post any kind of commentary whatsoever alongside videos. The changes were announced last Thursday on the YouTube Korea blog.

Also that day, the company's VP for global communications, Rachel Whetstone, posted a lengthy explanation, which also amounted to something of an apology. Translated into English, it loses a lot of its grace, although it quite clearly says that Google does not wish to be used as an instrument for governments' dissemination of information about its users.

Whetstone also called into question the need for governments to monitor certain categories of communications, noting that while Germany has banned the practice of Nazism, it encourages communication about Nazism in order for citizens to be conscientious of how evil the practice actually is.

This afternoon, Google sent Betanews an English-language human translation of the company's blog post, which includes this: "We have a bias in favor of people's right to free expression in everything we do. We are driven by a belief that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. We believe that it is important for free expression that people have the right to remain anonymous if they choose."

The Hankyoreh also did a much better job of translating Whetstone's Korean statement than Google's automated service, citing her as having written, "Google thinks the freedom of expression is most important value to uphold on the Internet. We concluded in the end that it is impossible to provide benefits to internet users while observing this country's law because the law does not fall in line with Google's principles."

Users may still be able to overcome YouTube's roadblocks -- if they want to take the risk -- by changing their country of origin in their profiles to any other country. A YouTube blog page actually explains this. However, users may still be taking a risk, especially if the new real-names login system takes account of uploads at the ISP level. It doesn't seem likely that such a bypass would completely absolve YouTube, under the new law, from conspiracy to commit an insult.

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