Friday, July 16, 2004

more postal scrotality

"A" writes in with more great questions and observations:


How did you get on with the press?

Have just read your 16 July post with the exchange with Robert. Agreed, it's vital to know who's doing the blocking, so I trawled back through stuff and tried to analyse it. Bear with me.

Who in MIC denied that the ban was MIC inspired? What did they actually say? (Your July 9 post refers.) Someone is playing with words, I think.

As you know, a press release went out on 24 June that was picked up all over the world (Reuters, Washington Times, Al Jazeera, China Daily, etc etc) and familiarly here:
KoreaTimes : Internet Providers Urged to Block Hostage Video
The Ministry of Information of Communication (MIC) on Thursday said it ordered all the nation's Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down access to Web sites that carry the execution of Kim Sun-il. "We have found a total of eight foreign-based Web sites showing the savage killing since this morning (Thursday) and blocked Internet access to them in cooperation with local ISPs," MIC official Moon Ki-hwan said.

Interesting here how the headline says "urged" and the copy beneath says "ordered". (Yonhap says "requested") Is there a translation issue here, misleading me? In this KT report, the criminal prosecution threat applies to Internet users spreading the footage, not to the ISPs. Though doubtless they would suffer penalties too. I'll have to learn Korean.

(I'm only just beginning to understand. Forgive me, I'm very slow and a long way off, and there has been so much written it's hard to separate the wood from the trees.)

I guess (correct me if I'm wrong) that after the MIC's order/urging/request/demand, ISPs were afraid of the penalities of non-compliance and took it upon themselves to block the blogging hosts without being asked to tackle those sites specifically. So apart from issuing a general edict, MIC could sit back and let others get on with it.

And so long as sites were being blocked, MIC wouldn't feel the need to ask questions about how effective or discriminating the blocking was. And they would say unto the ISPs "Well done, my good and faithful servants."

And MIC can sit there, faced with a bunch of angry foreigners and say "It wasn't us. We just made the policy."

It's like a bad dream. The logic is maddening. Re-reading Oranckay's 28 June post, and your July 9 post, I think he's right. Sort of. It's a web of semantics and buck-passing.

But don't they have some responsibility for seeing that the policy is properly carried out?
Yes, but. The nature of the ban means that it's virtually impossible not to catch innocent people up in it. (I asked a tech friend of mine about this: he says to block a single page is technically feasible but v expensive... that's why AOL are so indiscriminate in their spam-blocking. More on this if you like, but he's not an expert on filtering - I guess you must have those in Korea!)

That alone, if it's true, should make this sort of ban wrong. It's all very well to make a policy decision, but if it can't be implemented fairly within the technology, you need to look again at the policy. That's a point the MIC should take on board (even if they don't agree with it) irrespective of who actually is "responsible" for the physical blocking. O I can just see Korea forging the path to supersensitive and affordable filter code!

(And is it MIC, or ICEC? Did ICEC have an emergency meeting, or did the civil servants do it themselves? Or was a junior minister involved? In my country, it's not the sort of thing civil servants could do by themselves, but maybe Korean civil servants have more power. I'd expect it to be the ICEC, or a minister. It would be good if they could explain the process.)

All Koreans are being denied access to millions of English language blogs - and other sites. (But do they care?) I have no idea how the ban is working in Korean language circles. Antti's got a post today that looks interesting. I can't read a word of it, of course!


Some of the issues brought up in A's letter:

1. Who denied the ban was MIC-inspired?
2. Did the MIC urge, order, or request the ban?
3. MIC-Korean ISP links?
4. MIC, or ICEC?

1. I'd have to ask the journalist who mentioned the denial, but I doubt that even he has the name of the official in question.

2. Based on the conversation I had with KimcheeGI and Drambuie Man the other day, and on the talk I had with three journalists this evening, there's general agreement that the Korean government and Korean telecom are so buddy-buddy that, if the government wants something done, it has only to snap its fingers and KT will respond. There's an ocean-deep mystery in this: the question of the nature of govt/telecom collusion, especially as applies to the current ban.

Trying to figure out the chains of causation and the lines of responsibility is made doubly difficult by the apparently close relationship between the government and telecom. In any case, the net effect is that urging, ordering, and requesting effectively amount to the same thing. However, that doesn't end the issue. In tracing the causation backward in order to establish who did what, it's actually important to pierce the veil of "urge/order/request" ambiguity.

If, for example, the government ordered the ban, then the various ISPs would all have moved as one to enact it (in theory). If the government then lifts the ban (through a similar order), I expect that service everywhere will be restored almost simultaneously. If, however, the government merely urged or requested the ban, then we have two problems: (1) the government now can say that the enactment of the ban was a voluntary action by the various ISPs (thereby diffusing responsibility), and (2) we can't guarantee that restoration of service will be simultaneous. As "A" wrote previously, we've got the GeoCities problem to consider. The ban was enacted years ago, but I know from personal PC-bahng experience that there are still PC-bahngs (and, by extension, ISPs) that prevent access to GeoCities sites. If the ban was lifted, it wasn't lifted everywhere.

3. As to the question of MIC/ISP links, the flow chart shows a definite trickle-down of authority, starting with the MIC, and moving downward through the various forms of Korean telecom, including the several ISPs. MIC say, telecom do. So "A" depicts the situation correctly, I think: the ISPs will comply with the government so as not to suffer any consequences.

4. MIC or ICEC? As it turns out, this isn't either-or. The journalists confirm that the ICEC is to be considered under the umbrella of the MIC. This is important because, in my understanding, the ICEC is indeed the body that had the emergency meeting. This evening I drew two rough Venn diagrams for my interlocutors, one showing two partially overlapping circles (implying MIC/ICEC cooperation on a more or less equal footing, with some operational overlap), one showing a small circle inside a larger circle (i.e., the ICEC is a subset of the much larger MIC). It was agreed that the latter Venn diagram is a more accurate representation of the situation.

The good news, then, is that we don't have to focus our ire on a huge and vague MIC (cf. the previous Vatican analogy). As of now, the ICEC has my full and undivided attention.* I'd still want to determine its shape and anatomy, however, so the questions I asked of the MIC as a whole are the same ones I'd ask of the ICEC in particular: How many people are in it? Who are they? What respective functions does each committee member have? What is the nature of their authority over the various aspects of Korean telecom? I take it as given that this committee speaks with the voice of the South Korean government, so there's no question about the extent and force of the ICEC's authority-- only its nature.

[*other bloggers, to their credit, were mentioning the ICEC over a week ago. I'm slow on the uptake.]

I need to check with the Marmot about whether he made his MIC visit today; he said it'd be either today or Saturday morning. I imagine he'll blog about the visit, in which case I'll be linking to whatever he writes.

There was a good deal of consensus among the journalists that the Marmot might be onto something with his "bureaucratic incompetence" thesis. It could be that what we're seeing is a fumble-footed and patchwork reaction to an emotionally volatile event. I think there's partial truth to this. But the fact that the Korean government reflexively chose this course of action strikes me as somewhat sinister, and as the Marmot wrote, it's very disappointing to see that so many Korean Netizens are, effectively, collaborators in/supporters of the repressive effort.

One technical dimension of this discussion needs to be broached: the issue of Internet firewalls. I wasn't the only blogger at the International Press Club this evening: Charlie the KimcheeGI was there as well, and he's much more of a techie than I am. I asked Charlie whether firewalls were hardware or software, and he told me that both kinds exist, and can be tuned/modulated to assume whatever shape is desired. Some people have told me that they are able to see my blog with no trouble from their place of work, and from what I learned tonight, it would seem this may be a firewall configuration issue. This complicates matters and makes me wonder again at the exact shape of the ban. How did the ICEC and ISPs select the sites they targeted? They didn't target all that well. As Andi rightly points out on Blinger's boards, the huge online reference site, Wikipedia, is linking to the Kim Sun-il video and hasn't been blocked.

Some things we can agree on, based on what we know:

1. The ban hasn't worked. The video remains available for the asking. In fact, it seems the government has done next to nothing about proxies. I still use Unipeak to view my blog.

2. The ban is patchy/uneven. Some websites linking to the video remain unmolested; some blogging service providers have been given a free ride.

3. The Kim family's dignity hasn't been preserved one iota. From the press invading the Kims' home and hounding the family to the wide and continued availability of the beheading video, absolutely no kind gesture on behalf of the Kims has worked, and this is largely the fault of fellow Koreans: an overzealous press, a sensationalism-hungry public, a maladroit government, and yes-man ISPs.

4. The question of the Kim family's dignity exposes the hypocrisy of those who use that argument to support the ban. As the Marmot and others have pointed out, it isn't only that previous beheading videos have been shown, but that footage of Korean deaths have been fed to the public in previous years with no regard for the dignity/privacy/etc. of the victims' families.

I hope that Charlie's and my brief time with the reporters this evening will lead to something happening in the larger worldwide press. I'd hate for this issue to die a quiet death while justice remains unserved. Thanks again to Todd, Andrew, Paul, and Dan (and thanks for the Coca-Cola, all; too bad I don't drink alcohol).

ADDENDUM: Wooj links to an article in Korean that deals with the "legal basis" for the censorship. According to one of the journalists, Wooj's OhMyNews article garnered a comment, which said, in essence, that Wooj himself was "killing Kim Sun-il twice." I want to kick that commenter's stupid ass.


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