Net Neutrality is at Risk in the Republic of Korea

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Net neutrality in Korea is under threat. A proposed amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act would allow South Korean Internet service providers (ISPs) to impose financial barriers on content providers’ network access. If this amendment is passed, it will undermine net neutrality — the principle that ensures that every Internet user can freely access any content, application, services, and hardware of their choice without undue interference. The plurality and diversity of information on the Internet will be in peril if ISPs are allowed to use their control to slow, block, or prioritize content. To respond to the situation, the Wikimedia Foundation and several allies have issued an open letter to ask President Moon Jae-In to dismiss the proposed amendment and safeguard net neutrality.

What has been proposed

South Korea is one of the most connected countries in the world, with some of the highest connection speeds. Almost 92% of South Koreans use the Internet. They enjoy an Internet service market that is relatively diverse and open to competition, with 96 ISPs operating in the country.

The proposed amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act would give Korean ISPs permission to restrict or block access to content based on how much money has been paid by the content providers. If passed, Korean ISP would even legally be able to completely block traffic if content providers are unable to pay the network usage fees. Surprisingly, President Moon Jae-in, who is also a human rights lawyer, supports the proposed amendment of the Act. Internet users in Korea would be handing over their right to access information online, while the open network infrastructure of the Internet would become an artifact of the past if other Asian countries take similar steps.

What is net neutrality & why we need to protect it

In a nutshell, the principle of net neutrality says that the quality of service for traffic and devices on the Internet should not depend on the content provider’s ability or willingness to pay for delivery. At its core, the principle protects Internet users from discrimination in the form of blocking or throttling of some traffic, or prioritization of other data in exchange for a fee. Net neutrality principles have been upheld as international human rights standards by the Human Rights Council in the 2021 resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” which called on states to “ensure net neutrality” and “to prohibit attempts by Internet access service providers to assign priority to certain types of Internet content or application over others for payment or other commercial benefit.”

A digital space in which net neutrality is ignored will be an unequal and significantly less diverse space. Paid prioritization or delivery schemes give preferential treatment of online traffic for Big Tech companies that have financial resources to pay the fee, whilst subverting user choice as people would be unable to freely engage with content that has been de-prioritized or blocked.

The flow of information and knowledge online should not rest in the hands of ISPs, nor should it be restricted by financial incentives. A free and open Internet in which access to knowledge remains unrestricted is only possible if the principle of net neutrality remains respected.

That openness is a cornerstone of the Wikimedia Foundation’s vision to “imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” Net neutrality is crucial for the future of the open Internet in which access to knowledge can be enjoyed by all who have access to an Internet connection.

What we’re doing

We have signed an open letter alongside many allies, including Article 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Epicenter, and the Open Net Association, to request that President Moon drop his support for the proposed amendment to the Act, and halt the passing of this policy that would empower ISPs to undermine the principle of net neutrality.

As we remind President Moon, without net neutrality, people’s ability to share their ideas with many will be severely restricted by the imposition of charges for data delivery. This is not about the delivery of streaming media, but about the protections of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. We urge policy makers everywhere to protect people’s ability around the world to collaborate and share in the sum of knowledge.

Rachel Arinii Judhistari, Lead Public Policy Specialist, Asia, Wikimedia Foundation

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