ActiveX and the decline of Korean monoculture?

Not long ago I wrote about Google Chrome’s proposal to include ActiveX in the Korean market. This seemed like a transparent attempt to gain browser market share in a country where, due to government regulations, websites are locked into using Internet Explorer and ActiveX to carry out ecommerce.

In a press release from February the Electron Times (link in Korean, translation English pasted below) reports that Korean government is going to relax government website’s reliance on ActiveX. This is great news as it opens up choice for users in terms of what browser they can use, supports web standards, accessibility and innovation born out of competition.

All good news but for a couple of significant points – it only relates to government and proposes plugins as a solution.

Government only

As these changes relate only to Government websites the all important banking and e-commerce sites can stay as they are.  Changes will undoubtedly take time for government and while it’s hoped that this will influence non-government websites there is no guarantee.

Looking at lessons learnt from Section 508 in the USA – which mandated US federal governments to procure accessible technologies and build accessible websites – I’d say that this is not as far reaching as it needs to be. Yes, technology vendors such as Adobe have been forced to make their products accessible in order to retain US government sites as clients, but is that enough? One wonders why this stops with government websites but maybe I’m asking too much. Some change is better than none and we have to start somewhere I guess.

I spoke to a colleague in Korea and it seems that

ActiveX to be replaced by plugins

Secondly, rather than drop ActiveX entirely the proposal is to use a plugin, or a “keyboard security
module” that can be used in various other browsers. It seems a little odd to claim a “move towards web standards” whilst the solutions being implemented are are decidedly non-standard. I wonder if this will also just lead to more work in the long run as various plugins have to be built for various browsers – including mobile.

I’m also curious to know what browsers make the list of supported browsers. Given that IE usage is well above 90% there is little useful data to shed any light on non-IE browser usage. The Korean government could look towards other governments to see how they handle browser support such as the UK Browser Testing Guidelines that stress the importance of supporting standards-compliant browsers.

Added to this how will viable a solution it is expecting the average user to download and install plugins to make sites work in new browsers? Not very would be my guess.

A Google Chrome whitelist?

There has been talk of Google Chrome creating a white list of important sites that work in Chrome despite their reliance on ActiveX:

However, Google is not intending to miss out on the Korean market and said it is planning to make Active-X operate on Chrome for a designated number of Korean sties.

While this was reported in the Korea Times last September a colleague informs me that Chrome does not yet support this whitelist. So far so good, but what concerns me is that Google is opting to effectively endorse ActiveX by providing a work around rather than influence a move away from ActiveX.

Lois Kim, head of corporate communications and public affairs Google Korea, sees it as doing Korean Netizens a favour:

We don’t intend to make Chrome inconvenient to Korean Internet users.

I really can’t see it that way. Who defines this whitelist – the user, the website owner, Google? And how is it going to work with the proposed plugin? It just promises to get messy and yet again users lose out because this “fix” is temporary and essentially flawed much as the Microsoft IE8 opt in to standards mode switch is.

Looking ahead

In 2007 Gen Kanai asked what the cost of monoculture would be on a country that has to date been so locked into using one browser. In 2009 I think we’re seeing some of the fallout as there is clearly no easy route to opening up the Korean web space.

Much of the problem seems to be down to political conflict between government departments a colleague in Korea tells me. The press release below references the Ministry of Public Administration and Security’s (MOPAS) efforts to put in place a task force for standardization of government sites. This has been widely seen as a good thing however they have no jurisdiction over internet security and are limited in what they can do. Differing interpretations of regulations and differing attitudes of security software vendors stand well in the way of easy resolution.

Such political wranglings have not deterred standards advocates such as Professor Kichang Kim of Korea University pursuing a law suite against Financial Telecommunication & Clearings Institute (KFTC) for overwhelming use of ActiveX. Twice he has lost and is waiting for a ruling on a third case. He is part of a Korean Open Web movement who have been pushing for standards and accessibility law which came into affect April 11th so persistence does pay.

I hope that eventually the requirement to make websites work in other browsers extends beyond just government and does not rely on yet another non standards solution such as a plugin. It may be that the harsh reality is that putting pressure on commercial websites to change is difficult whereas creating laws and bringing lawsuits against government is easier so change needs to start there. Given my experience in the UK with government websites under a firmer directive to be accessible perhaps there is something in it.

Is it also too much to hope that Google has seen sense and is not going to go down the route of whitelists? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime let’s hope that Professor Kichang Kim’s current lawsuit is favourable – perhaps this could stop Google moving forward with their plans,

English press release from the Electronics Times: Dismantling Barriers among Internet Browsers

Posted 23th, Feb, 2009

The government is launching on an effort to promote web standards that
will allow unrestricted access to the Internet from all browsers including
Internet Explorer, Firefox, and so on.

A government division announced on Sunday that the Ministry of Public
Administration and Security plans to establish a policy to promote web
standards and enforce standard application by setting the current
condition of websites as evaluation criteria of information level.

Last April, the government enforced application of web standards for new
websites of administrative agencies and local governments, based on the
guideline for observation of web standards. This time, the scope of
enforcement will expand to cover existing websites.

With application of web standards, Internet will become accessible to many
more browsers such as Firefox, Safari and Opera, in addition to
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Until now, various Internet services have been developed separately, which
were criticized for lacking compatibility and accessibility. The
government will enforce the standard starting from the government web
services.

An insider of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security said that
the affiliated agencies and local governments will be forced to observe
web standards, and even though it will be hard to force the same to public
organizations, they will be requested to diagnose state of their websites
and to disclose the result to have a motive for improvement.

The Ministry of Public Administration and Security organized a task force,
with participation of developers, browser company managers and other
experts, and had five meetings so far in order to establish web standards
observation guideline. The Ministry is considering organization of a
committee that will conduct regular technical review.

Korea Communications Commission (KCC) recently launched on developing
keyboard security module, following development of Firefox certificate to
enable Internet banking on other browsers than IE. Internet banking on
Firefox has not been realized because the security module did not work on
the browser. To solve the problem, KCC plans to develop keyboard security
module for various browsers. An indiscriminating module will be applied to
certificate by the end of this year so that it can work regardless of
types of browsers.

Oh Sang-jin, section chief of KCC, said even though a number of people
that use browsers other than IE are insignificant, KCC decided to develop
keyboard security module to allow more people to access Internet service.

3 thoughts on “ActiveX and the decline of Korean monoculture?

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