South Korea provokes teenage smartphone privacy row

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Seoul

media captionParents and children are told they must have an app on mobile phones

How much control should parents have over teenagers' web browsing?

That's the debate raging in South Korea at the moment.

Because the government has ruled that people under 19 who buy a smartphone must install an app that monitors their web activity.

Parents will be able to to see what their kids are up to online and block access to "undesirable" sites.

Failure to install such an app means the phone won't work.

Is it a triumph of good sense or a paternalistic government going too far, especially when you consider that many of these youngsters are old enough to vote in other countries or serve in the military?

'Harmful content'

The government has developed its own monitoring app called Smart Sheriff, but there more than a dozen alternatives on the market.

Phone stores now have posters at the entrance saying: "Young smartphone users, you must install apps that block harmful content."

image copyrightAP
image captionPosters at phone store entrances say: "Young smartphone users, you must install apps that block harmful content"

Apple loophole

There is no opt-out.

But there are loopholes, including the fact that the Communications Commission assumes that in the land of Samsung everybody prefers Android to Apple, so, according to the critics, those with iPhones can get round the rule.

The government argument is simple but powerful: there is a pit of nastiness on the web and young people should be protected from it.

The opponents' argument is also simple and powerful: it's about personal freedom.

Children have to be allowed to roam in cyberspace - just like in physical space - to learn how to cope with life's difficulties, as well as enjoy life's pleasures.

And even if parts of the internet should be closed off to children, it's for parents to decide where the barriers should be, not the government.

Blocking access to a list of forbidden sites through a smartphone app is a step too far, they argue.

Some of the apps monitor particular words and phrases, then alert parents when these triggers are put into search engines.

image copyrightGoogle
image captionSouth Korea's media regulator funded the development of an app called Smart Sheriff, which notifies parents if their child searches for certain keywords

Examples include "threat", "run away from home", "pregnancy", and "crazy". There are many, many more.

Kim Kha Yeun, a lawyer at the Open Net Korea organisation, which is trying to get the compulsory instalment of the app blocked, said: "It is the same as installing a surveillance camera on teenagers' smartphones."

Open Net Korea also fears that the list of banned sites could expand at the behest of politicians for political reasons.

Smartphone rules

image copyrightAP
image captionSouth Korean children must have a monitoring app on their smartphone or face having it blocked from use

There is a tradition of paternalism in Korea.

South Korea was industrialised at the direction of the president, so it may be that what is tolerated in hi-tech Korea, where 8-out-of-10 teenagers own a smartphone, would not be tolerated elsewhere.

There have already been attempts to control the way citizens use technology.

For example, a default shutter-click sound has been introduced to smartphone cameras to discourage perverts from taking surreptitious, voyeuristic photos of people on trains, in changing rooms, or other public places.

But the small number of convictions for such an offence would indicate that the truly determined are managing to switch off this sound effect anyway.

In the shadow of dictatorship

South Korea is a vibrant democracy.

It's had free and fair elections since 1987. But paternalism doesn't have the bad name it might have in some other democracies.

That is partly because the track record of strong government is good, in the eyes of many Koreans.

The country was modernised rapidly under the firm leadership of a paternalistic president.

Major-General Park Chung-hee took power in a coup in 1961.

He was a strongman who utilised brutal methods - but he also dictated that industries be created.

Under his direction, the South Korean economic phenomenon was born.

Koreans know that.

And the current president knows that. She should do - Park Geun-hye is the dictator's daughter.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSamsung dominates smartphone sales in South Korea, but Apple has overtaken LG, another local brand

'Nasty stuff'

When the BBC talked to teenagers aged 18 and under, they resented being made to install Smart Sheriff or its alternatives.

At Seoul Global High School, Won June-Lee, Yerim Jin and Minjun Kim were studying 1984 - the George Orwell novel in which Big Brother first appears - when the BBC visited.

Their opinions all followed the same line: parents are right to have fears about what children are doing on the internet, but the kids are also entitled to challenge and negotiate what they are allowed to see.

And learning to control what kinds of media are encountered on the net is now a part of growing up, they argued.

Modern South Korea is struggling to come to terms with its past.

It is a country seemingly addicted to technology, but also accepting of paternalistic government; a vibrant democracy built on economic foundations laid by a despot.

Big Brother may have been tolerated in the past, but now he has to argue his case.

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