(Korea Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) By Cho Jin-seo

A law professor is leading a civil rights movement of computer users, pressuring the unresponsive government to lessen Microsoft’s monopoly on Korean Web sites and to give breathing room for non-Microsoft users.

Kim Kee-chang, who teaches at Korea University’s law school, is filing three compensation and criminal suits against the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Korea Financial Telecommunication & Clearing Institute (KFTC). Kim claims that the agencies have neglected their duty of preventing a monopoly for Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser.

In his most recent action, Kim and his Open Web group have assisted in a 10-billion-won compensation suit against the KFTC. The suit is to be filed this week by Pay Gate, an online payment solutions company that sells open-platform Internet banking certificate solutions.

“We are going to shatter them completely,'’ said Kim, 44, referring to the KFTC, an Internet banking mediator that has stuck to Microsoft platforms only. “We are going to help Pay Gate as an auxiliary party. Our lawyers will brief the judges on how evil the KFTC has been.'’

Pay Gate has focused on developing open-platform payment solutions. But as the government and the KFTC are forcing the banking industry to adopt the exclusively Microsoft-oriented platforms, the company has lost many business opportunities, with an estimated worth of tens of billions of won, the company claims.

It was such a heavy dependency on Microsoft systems that has enraged Kim and others who later formed the Open Web group.

Most banking, stock trading, shopping, gaming and government Web sites in South Korea use Microsoft platforms, leaving users of Apple computers, the Linux system and Firefox browser helpless. As a result, less than 1 percent of computer users in South Korea use non-Microsoft systems, while the portion is over 10 percent in other countries.

“It’s the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg,'’ said Lee Dong-san, an executive of Pay Gate. “About 99.8 percent of PCs in Korea are operating on Microsoft Windows. For software companies, it is difficult to make investment in the remaining 0.2 percent. So the industry became more and more Microsoft-oriented. It makes a full circle.'’

The bias to Microsoft products is causing serious problems even for Microsoft users as well. Korean Web sites uses a plug-in program called Active X. It is a 10-year-old technology, which is generally considered cumbersome and even unsafe in other countries.

For example, Korean banking and online shopping sites force consumers to install several Active X programs on their PCs in order to process money transactions. Hackers can easily install malicious hacking programs, while pretending they are legitimate ones. It is also not preferable in terms of national security that an entire nation’s Internet system is dependent on a single platform, Kim says.

In other nations, banking and other money transactions are being processed within the companies’ main servers without using the Active X programs, leaving a user’s PC untouched, thus safe and secure. Naturally, use of non-Microsoft systems is also accepted.

Microsoft, Government Remain Indifferent

Even Microsoft has admitted the vulnerability and exclusiveness of Active X and tried to discourage its use. It has posted warnings on its official Web site. The new Windows Vista system basically blocks users from installing Active X programs.

“We have talked with the government and with the bank solution providers since September. But we cannot force them to follow International standards. We simply advise them,'’ Park Jun-seok, a Microsoft executive, said in December before the launch of Vista.

But over the next two months, the company has slyly changed its stance with the Ministry of Information and Communication backing it.

“Active X is not malicious. It is the issue of how to adopt it without affecting a user PC’s system domain,'’ Park said last week. “We don’t decide whether to use it or not. It’s the financial agencies and Korea Information Security Agency (KISA) that decided Active X is the most suitable platform for Korean Web systems.'’

KISA is a branch of the Ministry of Information and Communication. An official of KISA said that it is advising firms to continue to use the Active X, by loosening Windows Vista’s security system. “We have considered the adoption of open platforms, but we don’t have any actual plan for it,'’ he said over the phone.

The Ministry of Information and Communication didn’t respond to repeated interview requests from The Korea Times, passing on phone calls from department to department from Wednesday to Friday. Also, the official who is accused by professor Kim refused to be identified in the paper and wanted the matter not to be published.

It was this indifferent attitude of the public servant that has agonized companies like Pay Gate and citizens like Kim.

Kim first encountered the problem when he returned to Korea in 2003 after studying and teaching in Britain for six years. At Cambridge, he had no trouble using the Internet with his Linux PC. But in Korea, it was impossible to use Internet banking, online shopping and other money transaction services as Korean Web sites are loaded with Active X, he said.

For years, many advanced PC users have complained about Korea’s unusual Microsoft dependency and a growing number of novice users are joining the Open Web movement. Most of them are computer engineers and technicians without knowledge and experience in law, so Kim, as a law expert, naturally has become a representative figure.

“I don’t do this for money,'’ he said. “But as a Linux user, I want to make a contribution for what I had received. Linux is an open platform, which is being developed by software engineers volunteering from all over the world. I got something for free, so I want to do something for them. This is a basic human instinct. This is the way forward for the Open Web movement.'’

Copyright 2007 Korea Times. Source: Financial Times Information Limited.