Korean Big Tech and Digital Human Rights

    Powerful digital platforms can make technical advancements that can impact people’s rights on the internet. Concepts of privacy protection or freedom of speech are no longer foreign in the context of the tech industry, including the South Korean market.

    For example, the private data leak is one of the common infringements upon people’s “digital rights”, often referred to as freedom of speech and privacy on digital platforms in the country. Over the past few years, there has been an increasing number of data leaks from financial institutes, online shopping malls and game companies. The Personal Information Infringement Report Center, a Korean authority that receives related complaints, gets around 100,000 reports yearly. Data leaks can be led to other crimes, such as identity theft and phishing.

    Some watchdogs have raised concerns about digital rights protection to big Korean tech companies.

    Ranking Digital Rights (RDR), owned by American thinktank New America, issues the “Big Tech Scorecard (BTS)” every year, studying the “world’s 14 most powerful digital platforms on their policies and practices affecting people’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy”, including two Korean tech companies, Kakao Corp and Samsung. 

    In this year’s edition released in May, two Korean companies and the rest could not get a passing grade in digital rights protection, potentially due to “continued political instability” in countries with well-established democracies, worldwide rising of “authoritarianism”, and Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

    Kakao Corp ranked sixth out of 14 in the overall ranking for setting up a board-level committee that monitors privacy and freedom of expression issues for the messenger app Kakao Talk. The corporation was previously criticized for having ill-motivated chatbots on messenger. RDR also evaluated that the company tried to answer the government’s requests for data privacy clearly in 2021.

    As for Samsung, a key operator of the Android mobile ecosystem, the company ranked 11th, below Chinese platform Baidu (9th) and above Amazon and Tencent (both 13th). RDR wrote in the report that the company came across as “less trustworthy” in some categories than others and received the lowest ratings in data privacy.

    Non-Korean companies based in South Korea can also be included in any digital rights-related regulations of the country. For example, the Personal Information Protection Commission, a government commission under the Prime Minister, charged 100 billion won (US$ 75 million) to Google and Meta for collecting and using behavioural information of other companies to make personalized, targeted advertisements and asked the responsible companies to get an agreement from the users. 

    In November 2022, citizens’ movements in the country, such as Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice and Lawyers for Democratic Society, urged the companies and other Korean big tech companies to define user identifiers like ids and internet protocol addresses as personal information and gain an agreement from users for collecting personal data through cookies – both policies are currently not in practice in the country. There also was a table discussion at the National Assembly regarding the issues around targeted advertisements and the use of personal information in September.

    Although privacy protection is one of the most crucial digital rights, some warn that such policies could encourage big tech to dominate the market. 

    “In the era of data economy, there is a growing importance of consumer data protection,” Yoon Soo-Hyun, the Korea Fair Trade Committee’s Vice Chairperson, said at the final presentation of the 2022 Fair Trade Academic Research Contest on November 28. “However, there is also a concern that data protection policies from big tech companies with a huge amount of data may build their dominance in the market.” Yoon reiterated that tech giants run a “closed data platform”, not permitting a transfer of accumulated data outside of their services in the name of “private data protection”, which can instigate their market domination and hinder fair competition for industrial growth. 

    Still, efforts to establish digital rights continue in South Korea. During the last week of November, the Korean government announced its roadmap to make the “Bill of Digital Rights” to guarantee universal access to the internet in the country. Kim Myung-Joo, a software security professor at Seoul Women’s University and one of the advisers to making the bill, was quoted as saying: “We are preparing a plan to establish the bill through an ethical and value-centred approach, along with a comparative approach, such as human rights and formation of communities through digital solidarity.”

    Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.