[Analysis] Porn indictment at Kakao Talk sends shockwaves through IT industry

Posted on : 2015-11-06 16:19 KST Modified on : 2015-11-06 16:19 KST
There are rumblings that the somewhat odd indictment is payback from snooping prosecutors
Kakao Talk
Kakao Talk

The indictment of Lee Seok-woo, 50, former president of Kakao Talk, has sent shockwaves through the entire IT industry, including internet firms and telecommunications companies. Lee is charged with having not done enough to prevent the distribution of child pornography.

The prosecutors think that Kakao did not take enough action to keep pornography from being posted on Kakao Group, a service that allows private group communication between. If this view were extended to the entire industry, it would likely have huge ramifications.


Does this apply to private chat rooms, the cloud, and text messages, too?

On Nov. 4, the Seongnam branch of the Suwon office of the prosecutors booked Lee without detention, indicting him on charges of violating the Act on the Protection of Children and Juveniles from Sexual Abuse by providing pornographic materials through an online service.

Article 17 of the act requires companies providing an online service that discover sexually explicit material involving minors to take technical steps to delete such material. Companies that fail to do so are subject to a maximum of three years in prison and up to 20 million won (US$17,600) in fines.

The reason the prosecutors’ indictment is causing uproar in the industry is because quite a few companies would be in trouble if this logic were applied across the board. Pornographic text messages, photos, videos, and web links can be sent on virtually any online medium, including text messages (SMS and MMS), online chatting programs, social media, and cloud services.

“By this logic, if someone sends an obscene picture involving minors to several people in a text message, the president of their telecom could be indicted for failing to stop it. This is baffling, since the implications is that all content that is sent via text messages, chatting programs, and group chats like Kakao Group and Naver Band must be closely monitored,” said a source in the telecom industry.


Companies even track the percentage of “skin tone” in pictures

Another controversial point is the grounds for the indictment - namely, that Kakao failed to take enough action. A huge amount of content - including pictures, videos, and links - are sent through chatting programs, online communities, the cloud, and other forms of media, yet there are no clear guidelines about how much monitoring and filtering by an internet company would be considered enough.

“In addition to automatically filtering out obscene language, we also have programs and staff dedicated to getting rid of pictures according to the percentage of ’skin tone‘ that they contain. But it’s not easy to find all pornographic material since there is no clear definition. There‘s no way of knowing how much internet companies are responsible for,” said a source at one search engine.

Another problem is that it is unclear how exactly to define pornography, and how much falls under that rubric. “Even in messages that are sent from one individual to another, we check for key words to filter out obscenities and spam, and we collect information about malicious links to shut these down, too. But it’s absurd to talk about blocking 100% of obscene material,” said a source at a telecom who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We are making a genuine effort, by scanning for keywords, looking for malicious links, and allowing users to report objectionable material. But requiring us to filter out even more obscene material on a private service necessarily implies a degree of censorship that would infringe on the privacy of users,” said a source at Kakao.


Behind the controversy about an “unreasonable indictment”

Others are drawing attention to how odd it is for the prosecutors to indict a search engine or indeed any online company in connection with child pornography.

“In a situation where even peer-to-peer file sharing companies aren‘t given a license unless they take certain steps such as implementing a post filtering system, it seems unlikely that Kakao didn’t take any action at all to filter pornographic material. In the end, the message that the prosecutors’ indictment sends to the industry is that if search engines or other internet companies get on the government’s bad side, this could happen to them, too” said Yang Hong-seok, a lawyer.

“Given a number of factors - including equitable treatment within the industry, the difficulty of monitoring for pornographic material, and the indictment not of the company but of its president - there is little chance that a court would convict Lee of the charges. That given, it really looks like the prosecutors‘ indictment of Lee is payback for his refusal to allow prosecutors to snoop on Kakao Talk,” another lawyer said.

By Lim Ji-seon, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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