On December 13, 2020, the Korea Communication Standards Commission (KCSC) issued a ruling to block South Korea’s access to womenonweb.kr, Women on Web’s website that provides information on women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights, medical abortion, and thereby helps women to obtain safe, timely and affordable abortion care, charging that the website facilitates sale of unprescribed drugs by non-pharmacists. The ruling to block the website follows a similar ruling on womenonweb.org that was issued on March 11, 2019. the undersigned organizations including Open Net, Women on Web International Foundation, Human Rights Watch are concerned that KCSC’s ruling blindly follows a request to KCSC by Korea’s Food and Drug Agency (KFDA) to block the site within Korea for distributing drugs in ways unapproved, without an independent professional analysis based on communications governance, and excessively restricts women’s access to knowledge. This ruling further impoverishes South Korean women in need of abortion economically and physically by ensuring that they are unable to access vital health information. Since the country's recent decision to make its restrictive abortion laws unconstitutional, women in need of abortion have been caught in a legal vacuum where no medicine for medical abortion has been approved, making the need for such information even more dire. The undersigned organizations therefore support Open Net’s filing of suit in administrative court to cancel KCSC's ruling on behalf of Women on Web International Foundation.
The KCSC ruling is excessive. KCSC has maintained the practice of shutting down the entire site, despite only some of the content failing its standard, simply for the reason that it is technically not feasible to block individual web pages. Women On Web’s sites have provided not only information about abortion, but about women’s sexual rights and reproductive rights, a topic in need of attention in South Korean society. Even the website’s information on abortion offers more than just resources to the pills: it also provides broader useful information on medical abortion, a safe and highly effective regimen supported by major medical organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Prohibiting South Korean women from accessing the general information about medical abortion merely because other information on the same website facilitates access to necessary medicines and possibly implicates local phamarcy law, which only allows sales of approved drugs in South Korea by pharmacists, infringes on women’s sexual and reproductive rights. While South Korea in general has an interest in enforcing domestic law, that interest does not justify such drastic censorship—particularly when the laws in question also limit women’s reproductive rights. Indeed, WHO has clearly stated that medical abortion can be safely self-managed at home up to the twelfth week when information and support from healthcare providers are available (including via telemedicine) without specialized medical care or direct supervision. They recommend use of mifepristone followed by misoprostol for medical abortion and the WHO has included those medicines in its essential medicines list. According to Human Rights Watch, blocking the website hinders realization of the right to health information, not just about abortion but about sexual and reproductive health and rights in general.
Furthermore, the ruling may be unrequired even under the local law: the abortion pills provided by Women On Web may be delivered to a place outside South Korea, in such cases, the transaction does not take place within South Korea and therefore is not subject to the strictures of South Korea’s pharmacy law, just like making a roundtrip over the border to purchase the pills. Blocking the entire website based merely on a possibility that a single page on the website may assist a possible South Korea-bound delivery is clearly excessive and unjustified. Finally, South Korea’s pharmacy law regulates only “sale” of drugs, but Women on Web does not accept any payment for provision of the medical abortion pills. Women may make voluntary donations of the amounts of their choice which also are not used to defray the cost of procuring the pills but only maintaining and supplying the information.
KCSC has maintained that they are an expert entity independent of other administrative agencies, the government, power groups, and ideologies. However, KCSC appears to have mechanically followed a request by KFDA without deliberating on the social context in which the information was sought for by women. KCSC’s decision belied its claim to expertise on governance of online communication space. It is for this very reason that only a very small number of countries exercise administrative censorship on the internet, and South Korea is even the rarer case where the laws enforced by the online censorship span almost all the laws in the book, including the pharmacy law.
KCSC’s decision to shut down the website to block distribution of the medical abortion pills is supposedly because such distribution is threatening women’s safety. However, its ruling is making women more vulnerable because they are now forced to pay high costs for these essential medicines and to obtain them elsewhere. A policy decision on whether to allow medication abortion has been delayed for a prolonged period during which women in time-sensitive circumstances were the biggest victims.
We express disappointment at KCSC’s unprofessional and irresponsible ruling. We express solidarity with women who are at the risk of being deprived of autonomy and demand that the government (a) fill the legal vacuum with the law and policy that ensures access to safe and legal abortion, (b) permit the use of the medicines for medication abortion, as per WHO guidelines, and ensure they are available and accessible, and (c) ensure access to information about sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion. We therefore support filing of a suit against KCSC’s ruling that has blindly enforced other administrative agency’s one-sided requests without proper consideration of social contexts, hoping that KCSC be reborn with true independence and expertise.
Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Human Rights Watch
Isango Lencube Ko (SA)
Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)
Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network
Progressive Network Center Jinbonet
Ranking Digital Rights
Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet)
The Tor Project
Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights
Women on Waves
Women on Web International Foundation