South Korea Still Paying The Price For Embracing Internet Explorer A Decade Ago

from the no-escape dept

The problems of monopolies arising through network effects, and the negative effects of the lock-in that results, are familiar enough. But it's rare to come across an entire nation suffering the consequences of both quite so clearly as South Korea, which finds itself in this situation thanks to a really unfortunate decision made by its government some years back:

At the end of the 1990s, Korea developed its own encryption technology, SEED, with the aim of securing e-commerce. Users must supply a digital certificate, protected by a personal password, for any online transaction in order to prove their identity. For Web sites to be able to verify the certificates, the technology requires users to install a Microsoft ActiveX plug-in.
The trouble is ActiveX is only supported on one platform: Microsoft Windows. As a result, when the South Korean government made the technology mandatory for online e-commerce, the entire South Korean Internet sector become enslaved to Internet Explorer:
It forced consumers to use Internet Explorer because it was the only browser ActiveX plug-ins were compatible with. By default, Web developers optimized not only banking and shopping Web sites for Internet Explorer, but all Web sites. For developers, this just seemed logical. The result has been a decade-long monopoly in the Korean market, where virtually all Korean Web sites are optimized for Internet Explorer.
Eventually, the South Korean government noticed that it was totally out of step with the rest of the world in effectively forbidding important alternative technologies like iPhones or Android, and took steps to remedy the situation:
A bylaw was created that said government Web sites must accommodate at least three different Web browsers and in 2010 they withdrew the mandate governing the use of ActiveX plug-ins.

But there was a catch.

If a company wants to stop using ActiveX plug-ins, it has to use an alternative technology that offers the same level of insurance. To get approval to use such a technology, they have to get approval from a government appraisal committee. The committee was formed over a year ago and has yet to make a single approval.
So even though the possibility of using something other than ActiveX is there, in practice there are simply no other options for secure transactions. A choice taken a decade ago to standardize on one technology has locked an entire nation into that platform, and it's proving extremely hard to escape.

And it's not just the local coders that are suffering: businesses, too, are hamstrung when it comes to innovation. As Kim Kee-chang, founder of the OpenWeb organization dedicated to expanding Web accessibility in Korea, explained:

"If people are thinking of opening up some service ultimately connected to payment they really have no chance in Korea," Kim said. "They are stuck in the payment stage and even if they could make it in Korea, they'd have little hope in an international market."
It's a classic lock-in due to network effects, aided and abetted by a thoughtless government decision all those years ago. As South Korea falls further and further behind in this regard, trapped in its fossilized world of ActiveX, it may well come to be seen as warning to other governments to adopt true open standards, if they want to avoid a similar fate.

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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 10 May 2012 @ 8:26pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    The simplest solution at the time was to simply ignore the stupidity of the export controls as writing 128 bit encryption software at the time wasn't all that difficult for practitioners in the field to do.

    The other solution was to just sit back and ignore it. I had no trouble downloading the 128 bit encryption software from out side of the United States and I doubt many others did. It's all very well and good for the US to ban export of these kinds of technology but the reality is that once it was released "into the wild" it was around the planet in seconds.

    The other bit of madness was to write an ActiveX control so that a browser, well IE, could access sites secured by SEED. Given that of all MS Internet technology perhaps only Outlook Express has more holes in it than ActiveX does. if the desire was for a secure transaction then using just about anything including two tin cans and a string would have been better than ActiveX. At least a pair of tin cans and a string are harder to use as attack vectors than ActiveX is.

    OK, so now you have South Korea, a country wanting to be knows for it's technology prowess and abilities that's a Windows monoculture by design. At least the design of one government department.

    The problem in the smart phone era is that Windows on smart phones is so rare as to be nearly invisible. Korea always had a choice. the picked one a 12 year old script kiddie could have come up with between sips of some energy drink and bites of the lastest designer sandwiches from 7-11.

    In fairness to MS, well a little fairness, the bureaucrats who made the decision(s) that brought South Korea here probably know as much about encrytion as they do about the Internet, Web and how their computers work. They understand the On/Off switch.

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