South Korea: gov’t under fire for ‘China-style’ internet censorship

The Korean government is under massive criticism after blocking access to hundreds of porn and gambling sites by opening up user data packets ― a method some people believe opened the door to China-style internet censorship. The Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), an internet censorship body, said on Feb. 11 that it had blocked access to 895 overseas-based websites with “harmful” content, including Pornhub, the world’s largest porn site. While doing so, the KCSC said it used Server Name Indication (SNI), which allows one IP address to serve multiple domain names over https. The move sparked controversy among many people, including computer scientists, over how much control the government should have for the right balance between protecting victims of “revenge porn” ― a big factor behind the measure ― and internet freedom. On the Cheong Wa Dae website, a petition against the new rule has garnered nearly 250,000 signatures. “It’s regrettable that Korea appears to be following in the footsteps of China to censor the internet,” the petitioner said.
On Saturday, about 100 people protested at Seoul Station Plaza. Simply put, if anyone tries to access a harmful website using https, the government opens up the data packets to find out the web server the person wants to access. While other information in the data packet is encrypted, the server address is not. Therefore, the government can block such access. Experts share the concern about privacy and freedom of expression. “In my opinion, the idea of opening up user data packets is not desirable and could invade privacy even though most information is encrypted,” Lee Gwan-hoo, professor of information technology and analytics at the American University’s Kogod School of Business, told The Korea Times. “The reason is that once the packet is open, even the encrypted information could be decrypted if the government finds out the ‘private key.'”
“In terms of freedom of expression on the internet, the new SNI-based blocking method does not necessarily increase the current level of limiting it because the new method just enforces the existing policy and regulation. However, in principle, the very idea of the government determining which websites are harmful and blocking them is a threat to freedom of expression.” Sauvik Das, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees and goes further. “SNI essentially allows a single IP address to serve multiple domain names over HTTPS ― but doing so requires the client to state, unencrypted, the domain name it is requesting,” he said. “Blocking these requests means the Korean government might be eavesdropping on every request to every domain name that each individual is sending out over the Internet. “This could constitute a privacy violation because, as you might imagine, privacy advocates do not like the idea of having every domain name they request being eavesdropped, particularly when they are requesting an encrypted connection.” Meanwhile, women’s rights organizations have praised the KCSC for taking what they say is necessary action to protect women. They said allowing access to porn sites, where revenge porn is not just found but plays a major role in attracting people, is tantamount to turning a blind eye to victims’ suffering.
By Jung Min-ho
(Korea Times)

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