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Privacy reaches boiling point in South Korea as dominant IM service openly defies police

kakaotalkBy Simon Davies

In a highly unusual act of defiance against government intrusion, South Korea’s dominant instant-messaging service has ceased responding to prosecutors’ warrants to access customer data.

Kakao Talk ended communications with law enforcement agencies on October 7th and has vowed that in future it will not comply with State requests to hand over personal information – regardless of the legal authority of such demands.

Kakao’s subsequent stand was based on a solid commercial rationale. The user leakage threatened the company’s dominant market position, evidenced by an eight percent drop in its share value in just one day.

The stand-off began last month when the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and other government agencies, including the National Police Agency, announced “proactive” measures to prevent the spread of false and malicious online postings.

The crackdown – which appears to have targeted Kakao – came after President Park Geun-Hye complained that such posts were socially divisive and destructive. Police agencies then instituted an aggressive set of measures to crack down on postings that they regarded as offensive.

Angered by the heightened surveillance of their communications, Kakao customers had begun defecting en masse to more secure messaging services. On October 1st, 610,000 South Koreans downloaded Telegram – an action that according to Rankey.com, resulted in Kakao losing 400,000 users.

Kakao’s subsequent stand was based on a solid commercial rationale. The user leakage threatened the company’s dominant market position, evidenced by an eight percent drop in its share value in just one day.

The company’s stand is likely to trigger a significant impact in the region. Around seventy percent of South Korea’s fifty million people use Kakao. The current episode underscores the increasing awareness of privacy rights across the Asian region.

In a news conference on Monday, the co-chief executive of Daum Kakao, Lee Sirgoo, publicly apologised to users.

“We regret that Daum Kakao failed to understand the anxiety of Kakao Talk users,” Lee said. “In order to prevent ourselves from making the same mistake, we will make privacy our top priority when there is clash between privacy and law.”

“If our decision is a violation of the law, I as the head of Daum Kakao, will bear any responsibility,” he added.

“Kakao Talk has grown on the back of users’ trust. We will make every effort to regain that trust,” Lee said.

Importantly, the company announced that it will institute a range of technological privacy protections early next year, including automatic deletion from its servers of read messages.