South Korea: Web App Controversy Reignites Net Neutrality Debate

Net neutrality is a principal which does not allow Internet service providers or governments to restrict consumers’ access to networks or to discriminate traffic coming from different contents and sites. As more and more people use smart phones and tablet computers, thereby increasingly burdening wireless connections, this core principle of Internet governance is fast becoming one of the most debated issues in South Korea.

Kakao Talk Controversy

On May 26, 2011, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) announced [ko] that they would soon examine whether ‘Kakao Talk‘, a smart phone messenger application which has 14 million users in South Korea, follows net neutrality guidelines. The app allows mobile device users to send and receive messages for free.

Kakao Talk, leading Korean mobile messenger application. Image by Flickr user VoIPman.

Kakao Talk, leading Korean mobile messenger application. Image by Flickr user VoIPman.

The government sees Kakao Talk as a ‘free rider’ of Internet network services, and is considering ordering them to pay network service fees to network providers as a result of the heavy traffic it is responsible for. This decision has drawn immediate criticism from net users.

Blogger Nizad, who published “The Naked Apple” in 2010, blames [ko] the decision for jeopardizing the nondiscriminatory policy which is essential for Internet development:

본래 망중립성이란 쉽게 풀어쓰면 다음과 같다. 통신망을 이용하는 데이터는 그것이 음성이든 문자든, 인터넷 데이터든 차별받지 않고 공정하게 취급받는다. 망 사업자는 중립적 입장에서 망을 관리해야 한다. 이런 것이다. (…) 네이버나 다음, 구글 등의 대형 포털사업자도 트래픽을 많이 유발한다. 그럼에도 망 사업자가 따로 제한하거나 요금을 물리지 않는다. 유독 카카오톡에만 민감하게 문제삼는 것도 우습다.

Let me break this down to you: the net neutrality means ‘any digital content using the network, whether it is audio (referring to phone calls), text messages or Internet data, should be protected from any discrimination and be fairly treated. And network providers should maintain their neutrality when managing various networks.’ […] Naver, Daum, or Google, these portal sites have also caused heavy traffic but the government did not regulate those big companies by limiting their service or demanding them extra fee, while they target KakaoTalk almost exclusively. This is ridiculous.

Blogger Imagination factory owner takes [ko] a more comprehensive approach to this issue:

물론 서비스의 개선 문제에 대해서는 요금을 지불해야 하는 것이 맞긴 하지만 요금 지불을 한다고 하여서 현제 버벅거리는 서비스가 좋아질 것이라는 기대는 안하게 되는 게 국내 통신사들이다. […] 거기다가 각 통신사별로 망 개선작업(LTE, 3W 등)의 사업을 추진하고 있는 이 시점에서 이 저격의 의미는 조금이라도 투자비를 회수하려는 것 처럼 보여지기도 한다.

Of course, we may need to pay an extra fee on improving the service quality. However, my experience tells that it is better not to expect Korean network providers to improve their dissatisfying service quality, even if we pay them more money. […] Moreover, as major network providers now conduct network improvement operations (LTE, 3W and the others), it seems that they penalize Kakao Talk to extract at least some of their investments out from it.

Blogger Ssangdoong Appa reacted similarly. He writes [ko] that even though it is understandable that network providers deserve the rights to demand an additional return from Kakao Talk, such a decision should be made carefully since it can cause a negative effect on small business start-ups:

왜냐하면 이전에는 이런류의 서비스가 없었으며 있다하더라도 그렇게 많은 트래픽을 일으키지 않았기때문에 이제는 정비가 필요한 것이다. 아쉽게도 이렇게 되면 신선한 작은 IT벤처회사들이 시장 진입장벽이 높아만 가니까 어려워질 것이다. 이런 부분을 국가는 염두하고 무조건 시장의 논리에 의해서만 대기업편을 들어줘서는 안 된다.

In the past there were no services like [Kakao Talk]. Even if there were, they did not cause this much traffic. As the situation has changed, we now need to adjust the current system. But if we allowed [a penalty against Kakao Talk or similar companies] it will further increase the market entry cost and thereby make things difficult for small IT start-ups. The government should take this into account when they form their policies and should refrain from blindly following market logic and siding with conglomerates.

Blogger Yonggari comments [ko] that even though there are numerous Wi-Fi networks installed throughout the country, citizens still face difficulty in using them because of compatibility issues; Wi-Fi providers each have their own unique systems and policies. The blogger feels the need to urge the Korean government to better manage the Internet infrastructure the nation already has, and proposes a commons-based solution that could ease the current tension and enhance public interests:

Wi-Fi가 대중적으로 보급되었지만 정작 공공장소에서의 Wi-Fi를 사용하다보면 여간 짜증나는일이 아닐 수 없다. 현재 SKT, KT, LGT 등 통신 3사의 Wi-Fi정책은 전부 다르다.[…] 하지만 이렇게 제한도 없고 정책도 없이 난립되는 AP[Access Point]들 때문에… 결국 서로 간섭을 일으키고 통신도 제대로 되지 않는 지경에 이르게 되는 것이다. (기본적으로 Wi-Fi는 14개 채널을 사용하지만 채널 간 guard space가 없이 인접채널과 겹쳐서 주파수를 사용한다. 그렇기 때문에 간섭엔 특히나 더 취약하기 마련이다.) 적어도 공공장소에서만큼은 시민들에게 통신사에 구애받지 않고 Wi-Fi망을 제대로 이용하게 해줄 수 없는건가?

Wi-Fi is widely spread, but accessing it in public space can often be irritating. Currently SKT, KT, LGT [Three major Korean network providers] all operate their own Wi-Fi differently.[…] However, there is no restriction on APs (Access Points). Those mushrooming APs interfere with each other and therefore undermine the overall communication efficiency. (Wi-Fi basically uses 14 channels. But there is no guard zone between neighboring channels, therefore making Wi-Fi specifically vulnerable to interruption.) I suggest that the government should allow citizens free access to Wi-Fi in public spaces no matter with which network providers they are registered.

Recently, a group of Korean and overseas Internet companies and contents providers, including major market leaders like NHN and Google Korea, announced [ko] that they plan to form Open Internet Alliance (OIA) on September 2011. Their purpose is to protect consumer rights and to prepare themselves for the KCC’s upcoming decision on net neutrality in November 2011.


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