I just got through having a fascinating conversation with a Korean friend of mine, full of little tidbits too awesome not to share. I mentioned one of the frustrating aspects of my time in Japan - being unable to join Mixi, Japan's most popular social networking site. You see, Mixi (at least as recently as two years ago) required a mobile number to verify users' identity. But because of rules partly justified as anti-terrorism initiatives, it's extremely difficult for foreigners who aren't permanent residents to get cell phones in their own names, leaving myself and many others to rent mobiles from third party resellers like Piccell Wireless (who I endorse - just don't download anything, data costs are brutal). But since the phone is officially registered to the company and not the renter, it can't be used to verify a Mixi account. I lost contact with a lot of people because I couldn't set up a Mixi account.
My friend noted that in Korea there is, if anything, a more restrictive regime on popular social networking sites like Cyworld.
Users have to verify their identity with a government-issued ID number. Only recently has it become even theoretically possible for foreigners to register with these sites, through a series of steps that generate replacements for government IDs. What's most bizarre about this is that the Korean system of government identification was originally the product of the Japanese occupation, during which Japanese authorities wanted to track their colonial subjects. After a hiatus, the system was resurrected as an anti-espionage measure - having an ID number was a way for South Koreans to prove that they weren't spies from the Communist north. The use of these ID numbers online goes way beyond social networking, and in particular includes highly developed e-government systems. As with most things 'net, SK is way out in front on e-governance, to the point where it has been able to market these systems to countries playing catch-up. So, chalk one up for tyranny? I guess?
It's worth remembering that these restrictive approaches to social networking are not unique to East Asia. Even three or four years ago, Facebook required that you be able to demonstrate affiliation with an institution of higher education, and the lingering effects of that stratifying and restricting move are still observable in studies that show class and educational differences between users of Myspace and Facebook. The take-home is simple, but always work remembering - no matter how seductive we may find the idea of the internet's infinite ability to bring the world together to sing in harmony, we can't seem to help putting those old barriers up in new places.