Kakao defies prosecution’s monitoring

October 14, 2014
Lee Sir-goo, Kakao co-CEO

Lee Sir-goo, Kakao co-CEO

CEO makes tough call to stem mass flights of users

By Yoon Sung-won

Daum Kakao, operator of instant messenger service KakaoTalk, said that it will no longer respond to prosecution requests for access to private conversations.

After apologizing for disappointing users, Lee Sir-goo, co-CEO of Daum Kakao, stressed he will take full responsibility over the legal consequences of refusing to abide by legitimate law enforcement.

“Not to repeat the faults we have made so far, we decided to unconditionally prioritize users’ privacy over the law when the two clash,” Lee said in a hurriedly-arranged press conference at the Korea Press Center in central Seoul, late Monday.

“To do this, we stopped accepting prosecution warrants to monitor our users’ private conversions from Oct. 7, and we hereby announce that we will continue to do so,” he said during a conference full of emotion.

The announcement came as a surprise as the decision will leave the company facing possible charges of obstruction of justice.

But Daum Kakao officials said the measure is a matter of “survival” and not “optional” in response to government moves responding to rumors on the Web and social media after it came under criticism following a ferry sinking in April that killed 300 people, most of them high school students. The administration’s efforts to monitor this criticism placed Daum Kakao in jeopardy with rattled KakaoTalks users seeking alternatives for “asylum.”

“If the decision means violating the law, I will abide by any punishment because I made the final call on this as CEO,” Lee said. “We did not talk with related government agencies about this, and we are not saying that warrants issued are flawed. But I believe the right way to handle our users’ criticism and disappointment is to strengthen protection of their privacy.”

He said the decision was not a personal one, but made with the agreement of management. Lee vowed that the company will continue to prioritize users’ privacy even if he is replaced by another person.

He said the company will organize an advisory committee on information security to verify if it is properly protecting user privacy, to discuss how this clashes with the law, and to develop and realize technological measures to deal with it. The committee will consist of other Internet companies in Korea as well as experts on information security and privacy protection.

“We understand that many other companies that provide Internet-based services share similar concerns and we will look to come up with wise answers,” Lee said.

He reiterated that the company has already shortened the time conversations are stored in the company’s servers to a maximum three days from seven in the past and pledged to encrypt all server data within the year. He also promised that the company will regularly publish a transparency report ― the first of which could be released at the end of the year.

About the “privacy mode” that uses a technology called “end-to-end encryption” to fundamentally remove the possibility that someone can monitor conversations on servers, Lee said this will be available first for one-on-one conversations starting this year. It will be ready for group chats and the PC version within the first and second quarter of next year, respectively.

However, he cautioned that the more complicated encryption technology could consequently lead to a worse user experience.

“The level of security and usability confront each other. This means more security functions will inevitably make the service more difficult to use,” he said. “But from the recent responses, we have learned that privacy protection is far more important than ease of use, and so we will change the service to meet this need.”

He also said the company may postpone the release of other new services based on KakaoTalk if they turned out to be problem in the new privacy-first policy.

President Park Geun-hye ordered the justice ministry last month to investigate unfounded stories in cyberspace.

At a cabinet meeting on Sept. 16, she complained of insults about her and said online rumors have “gone too far and divided society,” according to the Cheong Wa Dae website.