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Google battles Seoul over YouTube user privacy

South Korea may ban YouTube

Google is predicting 'rough' talks with the South Korean government, after the two parties clashed over user privacy. Indeed, the South Korean government could force Google to block access to its YouTube website in the ongoing dispute, Google's deputy counsel said Monday.

At issue is the government's request that Google comply with a Korean law that forces web surfers to use their real names and government-issued identification number when posting to widely used websites.

Google balked at this request earlier this year because the company thought it would be bad for users, said Nicole Wong, speaking at a human rights conference in Berkeley, California.

"Because we view YouTube as such an important platform for social and political speech, and because we think that anonymity in having that speech is a fundamental element of being able to express yourself, we were really uncomfortable with the notion of real name verification," she said.

Instead of complying, Google made it impossible to upload and comment on the company's kr.youtube.com website, the domain mentioned in the Korean government's request.

That move "didn't make the government very happy", Wong said. "What really didn't make them happy is that users can actually upload on any other subdomains, so you can still got to youtube.com or fr.youtube.com and upload your content," she said.

"We're going to be in some rough discussions, I think, with the Korean government over the next several months because of that decision."

Korea's law was enacted after several high-profile cyberbullying incidents in the highly wired country. The culmination came in October when a popular actress named Choi Jin Sil was reportedly driven to suicide by online gossip that her behaviour had caused another actor, Ahn Jae Hwan, to kill himself.

With Google now complying with the letter of the Korean government's request, but not its spirit, it seems possible that YouTube could be blocked in the country of 49 million.

"We've now told them we don't like their law. Does that mean they'll come back and say 'All right, it should apply to all of Youtube.com?'" Wong asked. "That is a possibility."

If that happens, it would be part of a disturbing trend that is eroding privacy and free speech, Wong said.

Western countries have experienced this too, she added. "Countries are now starting to backtrack from free expression and privacy in a way that is really harmful," she said, citing new ISP filtering requirements in Australia, designed to protect children from inappropriate online content. Italy is also said to be considering similar legislation, she noted.

The internet came of age in countries that placed a high value on free speech and privacy, but it is not clear whether those ideas will be respected in the countries that are just now coming online.

"What happens when western democracies say that they will start to censor speech or compromise user privacy, is that all of those other countries - Vietnam, Turkey, China - point to them and say 'Why would you hold us to a different standard?' And they're absolutely right."


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