Kakao backtalk, and other Daum ideas.

I’m sure you may have heard the scandal over the South Korean government’s request of Daum/Kakao to fork over users information in the last few weeks. If you haven’t, here’s the short version:

South Korean President Park Gyeun-Hye has been furious over circulating rumors. One of these, which Japanese journalist Tatsuya Kato is on trial for, alleges  “Park may have secretly met with a man during her reported seven-hour absence on April 16 (the day of the Sewol incident)” . This, among other rumors, have been widely circulated and thus infuriated Park and other members of her party.


Kato is defending his allegations, and states that she must be able to take critical commentaries. … and rightly so. Park knows all about that. The National Intelligence Service ran a smear campaign against Park’s opponent in order to secure her election in the first place. She knows all too well how important the right to critical commentary can be .

In fact, the government was so furious that it made requests to Daum/Kakao to collect user information for the purposes of PROSECUTING people who were spreading this or any other rumor. Korean citizens, infuriated by their governments insane overreaction, fled (to the tune of about 1.8 million users) to a messaging system called Telegram since the scandal broke, often greeting each other with the message “Welcome to exile”.

Can they even do this?

Well, sadly, in South Korea, the jaunty wording of the National Security Law allows for a fast and loose definition of what could constitute a ‘threat’ (read the HRW’s, Amnesty International’s or this UN Expert’s  condemnation of it). Also, defamation laws are much stricter in this country. In fact, even spreading a rumor that is demonstrably TRUE can land you a fine and/or jail time (So, for example: If you beat your wife and I tell people AND have proof of you doing it, I can still go to jail for saying that).

With those two things (and government clout) at their disposal, it seems pretty easy to move the arm that swings that blade.

Of course, Kakao is not the only way to send an angry face.

Singing (the praises of) Telegram:

On one hand, the people who disavowed Kakao are to be applauded. They immediately found a place that suited their privacy needs and mass migrated there. Telegram messenger, a German company, was all too happy to provide a Korean language option and accommodate its new subscribers on its encrypted network.

This kind of cyber migration is symptomatic of a growing resentment of government overreach with a ‘Public Safety’ label slapped on top. Only it seems that in this case, the packaging was sloppy and/or missing.

Koreans are often, and not without merit, accused of being far too obedient in situations that Western people would raise hell over. However, it appears that Korean citizens are more devout in keeping their privacy than anyone gave them credit for. This may not come as a surprise to some, as a recent UN report rated South Korea “more distrustful (of their government) than Iraq, Ukraine, and Nigeria”.

Korea is increasingly fed up with Park’s leadership, and this desperate gambit to squash rumors can only trouble her approval rating further.

However, here’s why I didn’t delete Kakao:

The Chaebol Strikes Back:

Daum/Kakao merged earlier this year, making it one of the largest companies in the country. Kakao talk is such a ubiquitous form of communication in this country that not possessing it is enough to arouse suspicion of social ineptitude.

Daum has a long reputation for fostering political dissent. It hosts a site called Agora; famous for, among other things, hosting forums where people can openly be critical of the ruling government, and share opinions without fear of this kind of (per/pro)secution. This has been around since Lee Myung Bak, and continues to be a valuable place for many Koreans to talk politics.

After the Kakao talk scandal broke, Daum has proactively accepted responsibility for their “complacency and poor reaction”. Also, it is taking the cue of Apple and Google by promptly developing an encryption service to put users information out of reach to the company and, by proxy, the government.

In fact, the CEO stated in this press conference that he will no longer respond to government requests to hand over user information. He agreed to accept full responsibility for his actions, stating that “privacy comes before the law”.He also stated that Kakao will issue transparency reports, the first of which will be published by the year’s end.

Through a mix of their longstanding commitment to fostering a place for freer discussion and learning though lessons of their Western counterparts, Daum has put the government in checkmate as to its handling of this situation. And good for them.

The War (that’s really a non issue) at home:

In much of the West, privacy is quickly suffering the death of a thousand tiny cuts. We all know that once governments have dug their heels into mass collection of private information for ‘metadata'( see: every single thing you say/place you go), their feelings of entitlement to it are hilarious and terrifying. One need look no further than the laughable fury of the FBI blasting Apple and Google for refusing to further take the fall for allowing police to violate their users privacy in order to illustrate this.

The SK Federal Government v. Pretty much everyone they are ‘representing’

Pessimistically. we might say that the government’s function is to look out for the interests of big companies,, whereas we might idealistically  say the function of government is to serve the interests of the people. This is neither of those things.  Here, the Korean government is  fighting for their own interests against both companies and citizens rights to protect their privacy.

These actions in this case are cringeworthy in many respects: First off, they have fostered further mistrust with their people. Moreover, they have actively driven part of the domestic market abroad in search of people spreading sex allegations.

I dutifully downloaded Telegram to hedge my bets about possible communication pathways. However, although I never jumped ship entirely, I applaud those who were ready to in defense of their rights. Daum/Kakao is fighting on the right side of the privacy issue with its users, and its actions are thoroughly consistent with that.

Cases like Daum/Kakao and Tatsuya Kato represent a countermeasure to a form of self-sabotage by the government. That being said, Daum/Kakao knows very well that they are fighting the good fight: for themselves, the future of their industry, and their customers.

Korea’s ‘Creative future’

In a time where Korea is focused on supporting new technology opportunities and innovation to remain economically relevant, keeping (and expanding) their domestic customer base is a high priority. If this country is to remain culturally relevant, it needs free expression which allows for new ideas. The common denominator between Korea’s desires for its future is a”creative economy”, to use President Park’s own words.

If your goal is to foster a creative economy, and both big companies and regular citizens are fighting you for violating their right to free expression, I have a closing question

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