Google chief Eric Schmidt has ignited controversy by planning a visit to North Korea in what the company claims is a “personal trip”. But could the web giant open up the world’s most secretive regime?
Internet access is limited in North Korea, where there is just one internet provider and roughly 30 websites operate inside the dictatorship. The country could provide a huge market for Google, who have experience of working with restrictive regimes.
While access to the internet is heavily restricted the communist country has a large internal network called Kwangmyong, which provides email services, news groups and a search engine inside the country.
Only the highest levels of government have authorisation to access the web, Kim Jong-il loved to surf the internet and reportedly asked former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright for her email address in 2001, but the intranet is free for public use.
Despite ranking as the worst country in the world for media freedom, North Korea’s environment is slowly changing. A survey of North Korean refugees has revealed that foreign DVDs and South Korean radio have allowed access to unsanctioned information while access to the internet and satellite TV still remains tightly controlled.
In 2008 Kim Jong-il allowed 3G technology into the country for the first time; although heavily monitored and restricted the country’s only network now reports having over one million customers.
The proliferation of mobile technology has created problems for the state security department, which can no longer monitor the majority of communications. But access is still provided to an elite – with most North Koreans unable to afford access to technology.
North Korean officials visited Google’s headquarters in California last year and Kim Jong-Un called for a modern “industrial revolution” in the country during his new year’s day speech, paving the way for a potential new market for Google.
The company has experience working with regimes that restrict access to the web. Until March 2010 Google adhered to China’s internet censorship policies enforced by the “great firewall of China”. Search results were filtered to remove references to events like Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, and independence movements in Tibet and Taiwan.
Today Google came under criticism for deactivating a feature on its search engine in mainland China that notifies it of potential government disruption to its service when sensitive keywords are entered.
Censorship monitor Great Fire has reported that Google dropped its censorship warning in early December and has taken down a page explaining the feature. The notification was brought in last May when the company found that searching for specific terms caused its service to stop working. Chinese control of the internet is tightening with all users now required to register with their real name.
Google has struggled to live up to its founding principle “Don’t be evil” but still upholds the need for information to cross all borders as one of its core philosophies. The company has defied government attempts to interfere with its services in a number of countries.
Many Muslim countries blocked services in protest at the anti-Islam Innocence of Muslims video posted on YouTube, but Google refused to remove the footage, although it did block access to it in Libya and Egypt.
On its transparency blog the company reveals that it has turned down requests from the police in the UK to remove content criticising them from YouTube and search results. However the company has complied with a legal request by the Monaco royal family to remove blog posts that “violated privacy”.
The North Korea trip comes as an antitrust investigation of Google in the US ended today without imposing any sanctions on it’s the company’s search business.
Is has been speculated that one goal of the trip could also be to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a US citizen the North Korean government said it is holding in custody.