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Is Internet Censorship Compatible with Democracy?: Legal Restrictions of Online Speech in South Korea

Eric S. Fish

Yale University, Law School, Students (PhD Candidate)

October 15, 2009

Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law, Forthcoming

This paper examines the history and causes of Internet censorship in South Korea, with special focus on the tension between South Korea's democratic political identity and its willingness to tolerate significant censorship of online political speech.

Part I presents the problem of Internet censorship in new democracies, addressing particularly whether the Internet is more free from state interference than the hierarchical 20th century model of mass media. This question takes on particular importance as the Internet is becoming the dominant model of mass communication in many democracies, and as television and print journalism increasingly fuse with the Internet and lose their independent identities.

Part II, the bulk of the paper, explores the background and political dynamics of censorship in South Korea. First it provides a brief overview of South Korean censorship during the country’s three cold war dictatorships. Second, it shows how South Korea’s post-1987 liberalization opened up its media sphere and political debate in crucial yet incomplete ways. In doing so it focuses on four key transformations: the emergence of a politically independent Constitutional Court with the power of judicial review, the establishment of a democratic system of elections that heavily restricts political expression, the incomplete rollback of government controls over print and broadcast media, and the gradual loosening of laws that restrict seditious and subversive speech. Third, it demonstrates how this incomplete liberalization has given the government cover to implement a shockingly restrictive Internet censorship bureaucracy, and how that censorship has continued even under presidents that were opposed to it. It chronicles how the strategies of the censorship bureaucracy have developed, and shows that recent developments under the administration of Lee Myung-bak have left free speech on the Internet particularly vulnerable.

Finally, Part III uses the story in Part II to identify the underlying dynamics that have caused the paradox of South Korean Internet censorship. It then identifies several of the problems that face South Korea’s Internet censorship regime, which give some indication that it may not be effective or sustainable into the future. These defects in the long-term viability of South Korea’s Internet censorship regime provide some hope to those concerned with the project of e-democracy worldwide, especially in emerging and illiberal democracies.

This paper then concludes with two strategies that Internet freedom activists can pursue to help undermine Internet censorship in South Korea.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 54

Keywords: South Korea, censorship, Internet, online, free speech, first amendment, constitutional law, Korean, web 2.0, access to knowledge

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Date posted: December 2, 2009 ; Last revised: July 17, 2015

Suggested Citation

Fish, Eric S., Is Internet Censorship Compatible with Democracy?: Legal Restrictions of Online Speech in South Korea (October 15, 2009). Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1489621

Contact Information

Eric S. Fish (Contact Author)
Yale University, Law School, Students (PhD Candidate) ( email )
127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States
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