South Korea: Bigotry and Censorship Masquerade as Protection of Youth

SUMMARY

The Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) recently adopted an internet content rating system classifying gay and lesbian websites as "harmful media" and enforcing their blockage--all under the guise of protecting youth.

The Ministry acted after an April 2001 decision by the Korean Information and Communications Ethics Committee (ICEC)--an officially independent body with wide censorship powers--which classified homosexuality under the category of "obscenity and perversion" in its "Criteria for Indecent Internet Sites." Activists in Korea trace the roots of this definition to a 1997 law which classifies descriptions of "homosexual love" as "harmful to youth." Since the MIC accepted this classification in July, access to gay and lesbian websites throughout Korea has been effectively blocked.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission joins the Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAD), a coalition of over twenty lesbian and gay rights organizations (as well as website masters), in calling for URGENT letters of protest to end this internet censorship, revise the repressive 1997 law, and protect freedom of expression in Korea.

ACTION

Letters of protest from the international human rights community to the addresses listed below are urgently requested. A sample letter is provided below.

If you would like to write your own letter or modify the sample letter, please demand an end to this system of compulsory site blocking by the Korean government; a revision of measures in the Youth Protection Law of Korea that designate homosexuality a harmful influence to youth; and the adoption of provisions barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Korea.

Please also express your opposition to any attempt to restrict access by Korean youth to information about sexual health and sexual orientation.

Write to:

President Kim Dae-Jung
President of the Republic of Korea
E-mail messages can be send from the following web address:
http://www.cwd.go.kr/cgi-bin/php/engletter/writeform.php3
Dr. Seungtaik Yang
Minister of Information and Communications
Republic of Korea
100 Sejongno, Jongnogu
Seoul 110-777
Korea
E-mail: minister@mic.go.kr
Chairman
Information and Communications Ethics Committee
6th Floor, Donga Tower
1321-6 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu
Seoul 137-070
Korea
Fax: +82-2-3415-0199
E-mail: webmaster@icec.or.kr, chairman@icec.or.kr
Soung-Yee Kim
Chairman
Commission on Youth Protection
Republic of Korea
303 Central Government Complex
77-6 Sejongno, Jongnogu
Seoul 110-760
Korea
Fax: +82-2-735-6265
E-mail: dckim@youth.go.kr kimsyee@youth.go.kr

Please send copies of letters to:

Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAD)
5th Floor, 95 Beonji
Hongin-Dong, Chung-Gu
Seoul 100-450
Korea
Tel: +82-2-2235-7422
Email: husoyi@yahoo.com (LGAAD International Coalition Coordinator)

SAMPLE LETTER

Dear Sir,

I am writing as a member of the international human rights community to protest the Republic of Korea's recently introduced internet content rating system. The Information and Communications Ethics Committee has classified homosexuality in the category of "obscenity and perversion" in its "Criteria for Indecent Internet Sites," and called for the blockage of all gay and lesbian internet sites in Korea. Since the introduction of the Internet Content Filtering Ordinance in July 2001, access has been blocked to many gay websites based in Korea. I demand an end to this blatant form of censorship.

These actions violate the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Korea is a signatory. The rights and expression of the lesbian and gay communities are not acceptable 'trade-offs' to satisfy concerns about protecting youth from viewing material considered offensive. In fact, blocking information about sexual orientation on the internet denies access to vital, even life-saving information and community, particularly for the vulnerable population of lesbian and gay youth.

The Youth Protection Act of 1997 specifically lists information about "homosexual love" as harmful to youth. I call upon your government to revise the Act to remove this discriminatory measure. Articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights recognize that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to protection from discrimination on any ground including race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has held this definition to include sexual orientation as a status protected from discrimination.

Finally, because Korean lesbians and gays face many forms of prejudice, I encourage the Korean government to adopt protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I appreciate your efforts to further the promise of universality of human rights and to extend protections against discrimination to every citizen in Korea, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Please send a written response informing me of the actions you intend to take in response to these concerns. Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

BACKGROUND

On April 24, 2001, the Information and Communications Ethics Committee (ICEC) released its "Criteria for Indecent Internet Sites", officially classifying homosexuality in the category of "obscenity and perversion." With this rating, the ICEC effectively called for the removal of gay-related material from virtually all websites based in Korea. A Seoul-based non-governmental organization, the ICEC is mandated by the 1995 Law for Electronics and Communications Businesses to suppress harmful information and communication, and to foster a healthy information culture by "filtering national illegal and harmful information" and preventing "cyber sexual violence."

In July 2001, an Internet Content Filtering Ordinance entered into effect, and implemented the definitions of the ICEC. The Ordinance was developed by the Korean Ministry of Information and Communication to prevent access to pornographic or offensive websites by children. This Ordinance, which a wide range of civic organizations criticized as a crude form of censorship, requires internet cafes and other public computer facilities accessible to youth (including schools and public libraries) to install filtering software. It also forces Internet Service Providers to block access to any websites deemed questionable. It also enforces an internet content rating system which is likely to contain a number of components: a list of officially banned sites, a regime of compulsory self-rating by web page designers, and blockage of websites based on a control list of keywords.

The ICEC has compiled a burgeoning list of over 120,000 websites that it considers "anti-social" and "objectionable"; efforts to access these are blocked by a firewall. In addition, according to the latest Internet Rating System Plan, all website designers are forced to rate their own content in terms of objectionable categories, using a system of meta-tags included on all pages of the site. Failure to do so will lead to a fine, along with the intervention of third-party rating bodies overseen by the ICEC and the Commission for Youth Protection; these are likely to include government offices, non-governmental organizations, schools, and parent groups. Finally, the usage of software filters, which search the content of websites, including the hidden programming code, for words or phrases that the government has deemed inappropriate, is highly likely. Criminal penalties are enforced on those who aid and abet access to sites deemed immoral.

The Youth Protection Act of 1997 underlies these government efforts to censor lesbian and gay web content. This law, designed to check the distribution of harmful media materials and drugs among youth as well as access to harmful media establishments by youth, gave the ICEC wide power to decide what media were "harmful" to youth in the information and telecommunications arenas. Article 8 of the Youth Protection Act includes within its "deliberation standard" of harmful media the following: "To describe bestiality or the commission of adultery by mixed couples of men and women, incest, homosexual love, abnormal acts such as sadism/masochism, sex mania, acts of prostitution, and other forms of sexual intercourse frowned upon from the point of view of society in general."

Even before the ICEC labeled homosexuality officially within its category of "obscenity and perversion," in September 2000, the Commission on Youth Protection sent official notification to Exzone.com, the first online gay community in Korea, that it was labeling the site "obscene" in accordance with the standards of the Youth Protection Act. Since the introduction of the Internet Content Filtering Ordinance in July, however, government interventions have moved beyond labeling to active and extensive blocking of gay sites throughout Korea.

On July 30, 2001, Ivancity.com, the gay site with the largest membership in Korea, was blocked with neither advance notice nor request for content modification from its website host--simply by a message stating the site had been closed down. In addition, two online clubs which were the most popular gay sites at Daum and Say Club--the major Internet Portal Sites in Korea--were recently closed at the behest of ICEC, on the basis of the Electronic Communications Law and the Law for Electronics and Communications Businesses.

In sum, the recent introduction of the Internet Content Filtering Ordinance and the lingering impact of the Youth Protection Act of 1997 have joined to eliminate spaces for free online expression of Korean lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders (LGBT). Operators of gay websites, forced to self-modify content based on standards imposed by the government, face a "catch-22": such modification will still not save the sites, as long as they are expressly for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgender prople. Many are forced to relocate their sites to addresses based in other countries.

The Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAD) was formed on July 28 as a coalition of approximately twenty LGBT social and human rights organizations to protest this government-enforced compulsory site blocking. When activists from this group protested to the ICEC, the ICEC claimed that the ratings were based on the standards of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), an international, independent organization providing a system of "open and objective" labelling of content while maintaining standards of free speech on the internet. LGAAD asked for an explanation, as the ICRA standards neither mention nor classify homosexuality. However, the ICEC has yet to offer a further statement.

LGAAD-Korea calls attention to the fact that measures allegedly designed to protect youth may in fact harm them. As the US-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) observes--in its groundbreaking report, "Access Denied: The Impact of Internet Filtering Software on the Gay and Lesbian Community"-- LGBT youth are among those most threatened by the imposition of filtering regimes. "The resources available on the Internet--websites, chats, and educational resources--are literally life-saving to these young people, who may live in isolation, not only geographically but emotionally as well." Studies indicating that LGBT youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts underscore the gravity of the stakes.

INTERNATIONAL LAW

The denial of access to information constitutes a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states: "Everyone should have a right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." The Republic of Korea is a signatory to the ICCPR, and bound by its provisions.

The ICCPR specifies a number of conditions under which the right to freedom of expression may be restricted. Such restrictions, however, must be in conformity to law as well as necessary in a democratic society. The Korean government's reliance on the extragovernmental and non-transparent decisionmaking of the ICEC renders these specific forms of censorship extralegal and unaccountable to the democratic process. They fail egregiously to meet the standard of necessity. And the provisions of the Internet Content Filtering Ordinance and the Youth Protection Act create restrictions contravening the commitments to inclusiveness and dialogue which are core aims of a democratic society.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

General background information about Internet Censorship and a campaign against the internet content rating system in Korea can be found at: http://www.freeonline.or.kr/english/index.html

For further information about the Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination, please see: http://www.exzone.com/lgaad

For more information about the mandate of the Information Communication Ethics Committee, please refer to: http://www.icec.or.kr/e.html

For more information about the Korean Youth Protection Committee, please see: http://www.youth.go.kr/english

The full text of the Youth Protection Act of 1997 can be found at: http://www.youth.go.kr/english/juvenile.html

The standards of the Internet Content Rating Association can be found at: http://www.rsac.org

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) report, "Access Denied: The Impact of Internet Filtering Software on the Gay and Lesbian Community," can be downloaded at: http://www.glaad.org/org/publications/access/index.html?record=185

###