SEOUL — Samsung and Google have banned popular gay social networking programs from their app stores in South Korea, where LGBT activists are facing increasing attempts by government and conservative activists to silence them.
Samsung, one of South Korea's largest business conglomerates and the largest maker of smartphones worldwide, rejected an application from the gay hookup app Hornet to be listed in its app store in 2013.
In a memo sent from Samsung to Hornet’s CEO and shared with BuzzFeed News, Samsung said the app could not be listed because, “due to the local moral values or laws, content containing LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi sexual, Transgender) is not allowed” in places like the Middle East, parts of east and south Asia, and LGBT-friendly places like the U.S. and the Nordic countries.
Samsung spokesperson Kelly Yeo confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the company does limit LGBT content on a country-by-country basis, but said it now does so based on “local laws and customs” instead of “local moral values or laws” and that Samsung is “continuing to update our policies.”
“We recognize that there were some inconsistencies in our policies and some of the wording could have been misinterpreted,” Yeo said. “Samsung Electronics’ global Code of Conduct provides our core statement of respect for the diversity of our employees, business partners and customers throughout the world.”
Hornet CEO Sean Howell was able to get the program listed in Samsung’s app store in the U.S. and many other countries after a four-year process, though it is still blocked in a seemingly random set of countries, including Argentina — where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010 — Iceland, Syria, and South Korea.
Samsung appears to list no other LGBT dating apps in its store other than Hornet anywhere in the world, but none of the other app developers contacted by BuzzFeed News say they’ve tried to have their app listed. Most Samsung smartphone users — like all users of Android phones — get their apps through Google Play, where apps including Hornet, Grindr, and Scruff are listed even in South Korea.
But Google Play removed the most popular gay dating app in South Korea, Jack’d, a few years ago, according to LGBT activists in Seoul. Google deleted the app apparently without notifying its developer. Jack’d’s lead account manager for Asia, Noah Staum, seemed surprised when asked about the delisting by BuzzFeed News, saying that Jack’d has more than 500,000 users in the country. They presumably are getting it by using a VPN that makes it appear as if their phone is in another country; instructions for doing this in Korean are easily found online.
Staum also said it was one of the only countries where they have more users on Android phones than on Apple's iOS even though Jack'd — and every other gay hookup app searched for by BuzzFeed News — is available in its app store in South Korea. But such apps on iPhones may not have made the same kind of waves as ones on Android; until a surge in iPhone 6 sales last fall, Apple had less than 15 percent of South Korea's smartphone market.
A Google spokesperson confirmed that Jack'd is not available in the Play store in South Korea, but declined to comment for this story, telling BuzzFeed News, “We can't provide comment on specific apps on Google Play.” An entry in Google’s Transparency Report says that it removed 293 apps from the store in the second half of 2012 at the request of the Korean Games Rating Board, but it did not identify which apps these included.
“I think in this case they would have been asked by the government” to remove the app, said Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which studies corporate censorship online. She said it was “surprising” to learn of Google Play’s removal of Jack’d without notice, since the company is known for a high standard of transparency.
“It’s one thing when a government [censors content], especially when a democratic government does it. We may not agree with it, but we can at least see the process,” York said. “When a corporation does it — we didn’t elect these people. They have no right to do that to us.”
This kind of censorship of LGBT content — sometimes under government order and sometimes under internal corporate policies — reveals the paradox of South Korea: It is a hub of international industry, one of the most wired nations in the world, and a democracy closely allied with the United States. But it also has a government that has created an extensive censorship regime in the name of protecting the state from North Korea, with which it is technically still at war, and has extended that apparatus to monitoring “obscenity” and “material harmful to minors” in a way that often silences the LGBT community.
“We encounter censorship on a regular basis,” said Kang Myeong-jin, organizer of the Korea Queer Cultural Festival, which had to go to court to overturn a police ban on its pride march held June 28. “Controlling cyber content, blocking access for users, or shutting down certain sites for admins depends on a really arbitrary standard from the enforcers.”
Korean LGBT activists have long fought for the right to freely connect online.
In 1997, a man known by the screen name Joong-jun created a bulletin board system known as Exzone. There were other gay BBSes before Exzone, but they all banned users from posting anything resembling personal ads fearing that they would be shut down by internet service providers. Exzone not only gave gay people a place to connect at a time when there were virtually no public figures who were out in South Korea, but it also facilitated dating in a way that anticipated apps like Jack’d and Hornet.
In 2001, the Ministry of Information ordered all LGBT sites to block children from accessing them, treating them basically the same as pornography. This was based on a provision of a 1997 law called the Youth Protection Act that classified homosexuality as a “harmful influence.” Joong-jun first called on the country's major gay BBSes to go dark as a kind of general strike in protest. Then, in January of 2002, he challenged the order in court.
Joong-jun took his fight all the way to the Constitutional Court and lost. But the litigation helped win a recommendation from the Human Rights Commission that the LGBT clause be deleted from the Youth Protection Act, which was done in 2004 under then-president and human rights activist Roh Moo-hyun. Today, the only anti-LGBT law still on the books criminalizes sodomy between soldiers, though that is far-reaching because Korean law requires all men to serve two years in uniform.
Today, “there is really no law against LGBT relationships or LGBT identities — there is really no legal basis for censorship,” said Park Kyung-sin, a free speech lawyer who spent four years as a member of the country’s censorship board, the Korean Communication Standards Commission, with support from the political opposition.
But the Standards Commission still has a broad mandate to limit content considered “obscene” or “harmful to minors,” and the people who enforce it apply special scrutiny to LGBT content, Park said. “The big problem with government censorship or private censorship is that LGBT material is automatically identified as material harmful to youth.”
Park illustrated how anti-LGBT attitudes play out by describing a 2011 vote to block a post on a now-defunct gay website that Park described as simply a set of images of “erect penises” without any additional context. He argued these were simply the kind of images that could be found in medical textbooks and shouldn’t be censored because there were no comments that made them explicitly sexual. He was overruled.
“Some of the commissioners were saying these pictures do have sexual connotation because they were posted on a gay site — these pictures were probably posted to attract other gays,” Park said. He posted them on his own blog in protest, and he faced a fine from the Standards Commission that he challenged in court.
As bad as this official censorship is, Park said that the voluntary censorship undertaken by companies that distribute content — like internet service providers or mobile content providers like Samsung — is in some ways more pernicious.
“Legally, it's harder to challenge because [companies] are backed up by constitutional right to do business the way they want,” Park said.
Critics of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2013 and is the daughter of the military ruler who controlled the country for 17 years, say her administration is increasingly restricting free speech rights. In addition to censorship that they say targets government critics, the government has increasingly used broad laws against defamation to control information. A human rights report released in June by the U.S. State Department said that 1,274 people, including some journalists, had been charged under one of these laws as of September 2014 and 121 sentenced to jail, a sharp increase from the 58 charged the year before.
The U.S. report also found that the number of posts deleted by the Ministry of National Defense because they were deemed supportive of North Korea totaled 37,130 between 2012 and August of 2014. According to official statistics from the KCSC, a total of 97,095 websites or pages were censored in 2014.
There are signs that the trend will continue to get worse. Kim Hyun-woong, who was confirmed as the country’s new justice minister on Thursday, answered a question about the pride march — which has been held annually for 16 years — during confirmation hearings this week by saying, “It does not go by our society’s traditional values or norms, therefore I believe there should be restrictions against it,” according to a transcript from Seoul radio station TBS eFM shared with BuzzFeed News.
The march went ahead anyway, after activists took the case to court. Tens of thousands of people turned out for the parade — as did thousands of protesters from Christian groups, some with close ties to top government officials, including the new prime minister and the education minister.
Korean LGBT activists expect their fight to get harder.
“Everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into when we protest against these standards,” said Kang Myeong-jin, the Korean Queer Cultural Festival organizer. “It’s like hitting a brick wall.”