I’d wager that most tech-savvy people around the world are familiar with China’s great firewall – the nationwide net-nanny system that controls what Chinese internet users can and cannot access online – but fewer people know that South Korea also restricts access to some websites.
That’s right, South Korea, free and democratic for more than two decades, still finds it necessary to keep some content away from its impressionable citizens. As of now, South Korea blocks a.) North Korean government websites, b.) pro-North Korea Websites and c.) (I’ve heard) some pornography websites. Attempting to visit one of these restricted sites wins you the privilege of seeing the following official-looking message from the Korea Communication Standards Commission and National Police Agency:
It not only informs you that the site is restricted but also gives you a list of phone numbers you can use to do things like report North Korean spies. Now, I feel obligated to inform you that while South Korea is on Reporters Without Borders‘ “Under Surveillance” list, it is not classified along with its northern neighbor as an Enemy of the Internet.
I started thinking about this topic last night when my internet connection slowed to the point where I couldn’t watch a YouTube video I’d planned to use in a seminar today.
When I went digging for answers I found out that the earthquake in Japan severed many of the submarine fiber optic cables that connect East Asia to the west coast of the U.S.
The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful graphic illustrating where these cables run. And I was shocked. After living in Korea for more than six years I had not realized that our connection runs first to mainland China near Beijing and Shanghai and then tendrils out to Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia.
I wondered, and still wonder as I’ve not yet found an answer, could China restrict or cut off South Korea’s access to the web? Russia threatened to cut natural gas supplies to Belarus in 2007. While such action would come with an enormous PR price tag to China, in theory it is possible and serves as another reminder of the difference between living in my superpower home country, the United States, and my adopted home of Korea.
For more information on China’s latest efforts to restrict internet access to its citizens, check out this post by Engadget’s Richard Lai entitled China Tightens Grip on VPN Access Amid Pro-democracy Protests.