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South Korea: Stricter Online Games Regulations Face Discontent

On April 29, 2011, the South Korean national assembly passed a revision of the Juvenile Protection Act. The Online Game Shutdown provision forces online game providers to shutdown their services for teenagers (aged 16 and under) from midnight to 6 am. The Ministry of Gender Equality & Family, responsible for developing policies for Korean youth, took the lead on the drafting of the law and extended its scope despite many criticism on its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Many Korean net users are worried about the “unintended consequences” of this “overzealous regulation” that, they say, could threaten freedom of expression online and the privacy of Korean youth and hinder the growth of the booming Korean game industry.

Bureaucratic politics played key role in implementing the regulations

The idea of shutting down online games after midnight was first proposed by Korean civil society groups back in October, 2004. At the time the rationale was to “protect teens’ right to sleep.”

A proposal was then introduced to the Korean national assembly by the right-wing majority Grand National Party in August, 2008 (the party was renamed the New Frontier Party since February 2012). However, the bill failed to pass because of a strong lobbying from the online game industry and the opposition of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism which is responsible for developing content industry including online games. It considered that the bill could harm the industry's growth.

The Ministry of Gender Equality & Family, in favor of the bill, took the offensive and launched a campaign to regulate the online game industry. It resulted in a compromise between the two opposing parties within the government that made the revision of the Juvenile Protection Act possible in 2011.

In the process, the online game industry and Internet users were sidelined. This resulted, predictably, in an escalating confrontation between government regulatory agencies on the one hand, and the online game industry and members of the civil society on the other.

The Ministry of Gender Equality & Family. They shared their office with the National Human Rights Commission. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Lawinc82 (CC BY-SA)

Netizens react to government regulations

Since the government announced the new regulations, reactions from netizens were generally negative. They lamented about the government's “myopic understanding” of the social causes behind youth addiction to online games.

Blogger Studioxga criticizes [ko] the government for not respecting the cultural rights of the youth that, he says, include playing online games. He writes:

이 법안은 청소년을 무조건 보호 받고 규제 받아야 하는 대상으로 보고 있는 것이 문제입니다. 기존 셧다운제도 마찬가지입니다만, 청소년의 문화를 향유할 자유를 제한하고 헌법에 보장된 자유를 이렇게 마음껏 유린하고 있습니다. 청소년은 이렇게 규제하고 하지 못 하게 막을 대상이 아닙니다. 그들 역시 하나의 자아를 가지고 있는 존재입니다. 그들의 선택권을 이렇게 제한하는 것이 아니라 청소년의 결정권을 존중하면서 함께 할 수 있는 사회가 되어야 합니다.

This bill only views teens as the subject of protection and regulation. That is the heart of the problem and it has been since the online game shut down policy was introduced. The law oppresses teens to fulfill their right of enjoying culture which is valued by the Constitution. Teens should not be the subject of regulatory politics. They also have their distinguished personalities. The society we must pursue is not a society which limits their deserved freedom of choice but respects them and grows with them.

Blogger realfactory analyzes [ko] the causes of misunderstandings and the nature of youth Internet use that captured the minds of Korean policy-makers:
여성가족부에서 내세우는 논리는 무려 수면권 보장이다. 아이들이 잠을 잘 수 있는 권리를 누리기 위해 게임을 하지 못하게 한다고 한다. 이러한 표면적 논리의 기저에는 ‘게임 혐오'가 숨어 있다. 청소년 문제가 발생할 때마다 죄 없이 까이는 게 게임이다. 이미 2001년 게임에 중독된 중학생이 동생을 살해했다고 하는데, 그 게임이 무려 영웅전설과 이스 이터널로 아주 아기자기한 게임이다. 11년이 지난 2012년에도 게임에 중독된 고교생이 친구를 살해했다고 하는데, 그 게임은 한 발 더 떠서 피파 온라인!

The rationale used by the Ministry of Gender Equality & Family is to protect teens’ right to sleep. They said the regulation is necessary to help teens enjoy the right to sleep. Nevertheless, that is a lie. The real reason is their “hatred of youth playing games.” Whenever some juvenile problems emerged, they used online games as a scapegoat. In 2001, when a middle school student killed his younger brother, the media and government criticized his addiction to games. But the games he played were The Legends of Heroes and YS Eternal, extremely delicate and soft ones! 11 years later, in 2011, they also said a game addict high school student killed his friend! But the game he played was FIFA Online!

The same blogger urges [ko] the Korean government to think about youth culture and the real causes of juvenile problems. He writes:
게임 혐오보다 더 아래로 파고들어가면 결국 아이들이 누리는 문화에 대한 기성세대의 몰이해가 깔려 있다. 아이들이 즐기는 문화에 대한 혐오는 비단 게임에만 국한되는 것이 아니다. 만화도 예전부터 분서갱유의 대상으로 학교에서 압수 대상이었으며, 이는 최근 조선일보의 웹툰 조지기에서도 알 수 있다. 만화와 게임은 아이들은 널리 그 문화를 향유하지만, 부모세대의 이해가 깊지 않다는 공통점이 있다. 결국 가장 큰 문제는 자녀교육에 대한 무책임이다. 현재 기성세대의 만화, 게임 등을 무조건적으로 막음으로 해결된다는 믿음을 가지고 있다. 그리고 정치인들은 표심을 위해 이를 부채질한다. 셧다운제는 근본적으로 청소년들이 “왜 게임에 중독되는지”, “왜 심야에 게임을 하는지”에 대한 고민없이 도입된 제도라는 점에서 근본적인 문제가 있다.

The root of their [Korean adults including government agencies] hatred of youth playing games is their total ignorance of youth culture. Youth culture is not limited to playing games. In the past, comic books were censored and prohibited by schools. As a matter of fact, this practice hasn't disappeared, and we see how Chosun Ilbo [the largest conservative newspaper in South Korea] is still trying to demonize online cartoons. The biggest problem is Korean parents’ lack of responsibility. They have a faith in the idea that if we prohibit everything their children will stop seeking to enjoy comic books or online games, then all the worries will be gone. Politicians [because they know those parents are their voters] nurture this idea. This is the fundamental problem on this issue. This distorted view does not help us better understand why in the first place Korean teens can't enjoy anything but “playing online games” and why they have to play games “during the night” [due to their heavy school works to survive in an increasingly hyper-competitive society].

On January 8, 2013, New Frontier Party member In-chun Son [ko] led the Online Game Addiction Prevention Bill [ko] and the Online Game Addiction Healing Center Construction Bill [ko] to enlarge the scope of the current online game regulatory regime. If Son's bill is passed, it will become illegal for Korean youth to play online games after 10 pm and the Korean online game industry will have to provide around 1% of its revenue to support establishing addiction healing centers nationwide. On the other hand, Byung-hun Jun [ko], a member of the opposition Democratic party member, has prepared a rival bill that intends to nullify the current Online Game Shutdown policy.
The game is not yet over.

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