From semiconductors to autonomous robotics, the May 21 joint statement between Presidents Yoon Suk Yeol and Joe Biden emphasized strategic, economic, and technology partnerships between South Korea and the United States. There were also two items related to internet policies that did not get much attention from the press but carry significant implications for the future of the two countries’ cooperation on bilateral trade and human rights.
First, both leaders affirmed the commitment of their respective government to protect an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet.” The joint statement added that South Korea was “ready to join” the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. This is a U.S.-led global partnership of 60 other countries, including members of the European Union, Japan, and Taiwan, that came together in April 2022. Although there are no specific actions laid out yet, the declaration sets a common rule for use of technology that will constitute the future of high-value trade between post-industrial countries.
South Korea was not a signatory to the declaration, and this could cause headwinds for its enterprises to export digital services to peer economies in the future. One reason for Seoul’s initial exclusion from the agreement could be due to an ongoing legal battle between a South Korean internet service provider, SK Broadband, and the U.S. content distributor Netflix. The two sides disagree on who is financially responsible for increased internet traffic caused by more South Koreans streaming Netflix’s content. In response, the South Korean National Assembly is debating a proposed revision to the Telecommunications Business Act that would require global content providers to pay additional network fees to Korean internet providers when there is a surge in broadband usage to access foreign platforms.
Concerns raised by Netflix and other large U.S. content distributors may create challenges for domestic digital service companies looking for partners to grow globally. YouTube’s Vice President and Managing Director for APAC Gautam Anand noted that the revised law could “undermine YouTube’s opportunity to make continuous investments for Korean creators to be successful.” The U.S. Trade Representative’s 2022 National Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barrier also addresses this issue as a trade barrier between the United States and South Korea along with the South Korean government’s restriction on the cross-border data transfer for international companies.
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Although Biden did not visit the Netflix Korea office during his trip to South Korea, as initially reported by a Korean media outlet, the reference to an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet” in the joint statement raises the possibility that the two leaders agreed in principle to work out the differences in the near future. As the digital economy expands rapidly, ironing out these common rules and promoting greater trade in digital services early may determine the long-term competitiveness of countries in this frontier industry.
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Another internet-related item on the joint statement worth noting is the U.S. and South Korea joining the “Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse as founding members.” The Global Partnership, for short, was launched in March 2022 to bring together governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector to prevent and address online harassment. Similar language was included in the last Biden-Moon summit statement, where the two countries agreed to work together “to end the abuse of women and girls, including domestic violence and cyber-exploitation, and to exchange best practices to close the gender wage gap – a challenge both our countries share.” The renewed commitment highlights the importance of South Korea doing more to deliver governance that would ensure a safe and inclusive cyberspace for web users around the world.
According to the White House, “one in three women under the age of 35—and over half of LGBTQI+ individuals” have experienced sexual harassment and stalking online. Recently, online harassment has expanded to the virtual space, with reports of sexual harassment on Meta’s Horizon Worlds, Roblox, and other metaverse platforms.
South Korea has been battling online harassment and digital sex crimes, which reflect deeper social issues for Korean women. Although several ring leaders of the most well-known cases such as Nth Room have been sentenced to relatively severe punishment, it has not completely eradicated the problem. Digital sex crimes have been increasing over the years, and more than 73 percent of victims are female.
As brought up during the press conference, Yoon’s approach to gender issues has been getting international attention – especially his campaign promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF). The ministry is the Korean government agency that helps the victims of digital sex crimes and sexual harassment. If the U.S. and South Korea follow through on this global partnership, MOGEF would be the sensible body to lead the effort in concert with other government agencies.
Internet policies will increasingly play a bigger role in the future as the digital economy develops more rapidly across the globe. South Korea’s own future will be in the digital services trade, and its role in providing governance to ensure better safety online will not only affect Koreans but also people around the world. As technology evolves and becomes a more integrated part of our lives, addressing online harassment will be critical to safety for all genders, including children.
As technologically advanced countries with shared values, the United States and South Korea have created the basis for working more closely on setting global norms for a more free, open, and safe internet. This is a good start but much more work at the working level is needed to actualize the visions of both countries.