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China cracks down, South Korea speeds up

SEOUL, South Korea – It’s a strange thing to be reading about China’s continued crackdown on the Internet from our temporary perch in Seoul.

The last time I was here was in 1989.  The Pre-Internet Age.

This time, on my first visit in more than 20 years, South Korea owns the mantle of the world’s fastest Internet connection, according to a quarterly survey known as the State of the Internet by Akamai.  It's on average four times as fast as that of the U.S. 

But that just isn’t fast enough.

By the end of next year, the South Korean government plans to have every home in the nation hooked up to the Internet at a speed of one gigabit per second. Imagine being able to download the entire Godfather trilogy in 20 seconds.


A woman walks past the logo of Google in front of its headquarters in Beijing in this January 2011 file photo.

Gmail service, interrupted
In the meantime, over in China, land of the Great Firewall, reports are emerging that the download speed of Gmail has plunged.  We won’t get into the technicalities of kbps, but let’s just say Gmail is now operating 45 times slower than the most popular free Chinese instant messaging service known as QQ. 

The disruptions to Gmail don’t end there.  For weeks now, ordinary Gmail users have complained about interrupted service.  Writer Wang Lixiong tweeted that he received this message from Gmail when he tried to log in: “Your account is locked, because abnormal activities are detected.  You may have to wait 24 hours before you can log in again.”

Another user told my colleague Bo Gu that China Unicom appears to be blocking Gmail entirely from mobile devices.

And in the wake of calls for Jasmine rallies foreign journalists in China have been vigilant about attempts to hack into their email accounts. 

The disrupted service coincides with a surge in reported failures of several VPNs (virtual private networks), designed to circumvent China’s Internet firewall.

On Monday, Google accused the Chinese government of obstructing access to its Gmail service, saying the company had checked everything on its own end and concluded that the problems are the result of a “blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail.” 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied the accusation.

Speedy Internet = Open Internet
South Korea’s drive to lead the way globally in broadband access originated in the mid-1990s, but its efforts stepped up immediately after its economy was crippled by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  And technology became a cornerstone of the government’s strategy to reboot and refashion its economy.

Seoul's approach to the Internet is instructive.  Although there are many reasons it has managed to power ahead of the pack, there is one that stands out in sharp relief against what’s happening in China: the open (and highly competitive) nature of its telecoms market.

“The idea behind an “open” system is essentially that, for a fee, broadband providers must share the cables that carry Internet signals into people’s homes,” says one report.  “Companies that build those lines typically oppose this sharing.  A number of governments, including South Korea and Japan and several European countries, have experimented with or embraced infrastructure-sharing as a way to get new companies to compete in the broadband market.”

China doesn’t allow that kind of openness—either in its infrastructure or in its content.