by JAMES S. KIM
Many South Koreans are considering leaving KakaoTalk and switching to other mobile messaging applications due to concerns over a government crackdown on rumors circulating on social media, according to the Associated Press.
In mid-September, the South Korean government announced that it would be taking “proactive” measures to prevent the spread of false and malicious postings on major portal websites through the creation of a special investigative team. This means if someone were to cause a serious social controversy through false accusations and rumors, then that individual could face detainment or punishment for his or her actions. The investigative team would then potentially gain access to private chat histories to seek out the origins of these rumors.
The announcement hasn’t sat well with South Korean social media users. Many have accused the government of censorship and attempting to control public opinion, and in the last few weeks, a considerable number have weighed dropping Kakao Talk in favor of different mobile messaging options.
The most popular alternative messaging application has been Telegram, a free Russia-based app that was created to avoid surveillance from Russian officials. On Friday, it was the most downloaded free app on the Apple App Store in South Korea; on the Google Play Store, Telegram was the No. 2 downloaded free communications app behind KakaoTalk. A few of the app’s South Korean users said in reviews that they left KakaoTalk to seek “asylum” from government surveillance and requested Telegram to add a Korean language service.
A research firm said an estimated 610,000 South Korean visited Telegram last week, a 40-fold increase compared to the numbers before the crackdown was announced. Smaller South Korean messaging apps, such as DonTalk, have seen higher downloads in recent weeks as well, along with other messengers that have their servers abroad.
Despite this mass migration, it’s hard to picture South Korea without KakaoTalk. After all, Nielsen reported at the end of 2013 that 93 percent of South Koreans used the application. Telegram hardly comes close, especially since it lacks the language option and special features such as emoticons and games that KakaoTalk provides.
President Park Geun-hye’s administration has been sensitive to social media. Many South Koreans were critical of the government’s response to the Sewol ferry sinking in April, and a number of them said their houses and social media accounts had been searched with court approval.
Park also relayed her unhappiness over online rumors during a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 16. She said that slander and false rumors on the Internet were causing division in the nation, and she ordered the justice ministry to investigate unfounded rumors on the Internet, which led to the formation of the investigative team.
They didn’t waste much time. On Oct. 1, a woman accused of libeling President Park was sentenced to four months in prison with a one-year stay of execution. The woman, identified only by the surname Tak, was found guilty of spreading false rumors that the president had an extramarital affair with her former mentor and his son-in-law.
Civic organizations also criticized police and government officials for recently seizing KakaoTalk chats and personal information of Labor Party leader Jung Jin-woo and about 3,000 of his acquaintances. They had gathered to demand a probe into the Sewol ferry disaster.
Daum Kakao, which was formed by the merger of Daum Communications and Kakao, has tried to assuage Kakao Talk users by saying that authorities could not look at users’ messages without a court order. Co-CEO of Daum Kakao, Lee Sirgoo, told reporters last week that the company had “top security technology to prevent leaks and hacking,” and that KakaoTalk messages were only stored on servers for only three days before getting permanently deleted.
However, Lee said Kakao Talk was still “subject to South Korean law” and would still hand over information “when there is a fair execution of law.”