Home > Personal Technology > Microsoft > Korea’s ActiveX problem

The world’s most wired nation has trouble scrapping a protocol from the ‘90s, and now it’s a national issue.


Fire up the WiFi at one of the many Starbucks cafes in Seoul and you’ll be greeted with a login portal that many from the West might find peculiar. In order to get online you have to enter your identity number if you’re Korean, or, if you’re a foreigner an alien registration card number or passport number. Any one of these authentication methods are linked to your biometrics (foreigners have their fingerprints scanned upon arrival), and are used, as per the government’s party line, to ensure a “safer web experience” for all involved.

A similar process is used for e-commerce. Anything from the various local Taobao and eBay equivalents of the country, to booking a ticket on local carriers like Asiana or Korean Airlines, require parties in the transaction to authenticate themselves using this same system.

The use of digital certificates is codified in Korean law. South Korea was an early adopter of e-commerce in the 1990s, and at a time when fear of online fraud was high and knowledge about the Internet was low, the government passed a law requiring the country’s national ID system — a document that’s a daily necessity to function in the Korean economy —  to be extended into cyberspace. When the project was completed in the late 1990s it was hailed as another Korean technological marvel; proof that the quickly developing country was far ahead of its time.

But there’s just one problem: the entire system requires ActiveX to run.

A government-sized oversight

The era when this system was being built was one of browser monopolies and court cases like United States vs. Microsoft. Internet Explorer reigned supreme, and ActiveX was an important API to ensure a secure operating environment in a browser.

But now times have changed. Microsoft still supports ActiveX in Internet Explorer, but only as a legacy technology and actively discourages the use of the protocol. In fact, a recent security advisory put out by Microsoft says the API “can stop your computer from functioning correctly, collect your browsing habits and personal information without your knowledge, or can give you content, like pop-up ads that you don’t want.

ActiveX is a Windows-only affair, so OSX, iOS and Android users aren’t able to participate in the South Korean e-commerce economy. In addition, Microsoft says that Internet Explorer ran in Metro mode (Modern UI) on Windows 8 won’t be able to support the antiquated API. Thus, Internet Explorer’s market share is the highest in the world in Korea with over three-quarters of users logging onto the web via the browser.

A national campaign

Unsurprisingly, the business community is pushing hard for the Korean government to move away from ActiveX. According to a poll released Monday by the Federation of Korean Industries, 78.6 percent of the respondents said they wanted the use of the ActiveX API to be discontinued.

A report by the same industry group showed that reliance on ActiveX means that e-commerce accounts for only a sliver of Korea’s GDP, 0.24 percent,  when compared to China, at 1.68 percent, and the United States at 1.24 percent.

Now even the President has set her sights on surgically removing the antiquated API from Korea’s economy. According to a report by Korea Joongang Daily, Korean President Park Geun-hye has acknowledged the obstacles that ActiveX plays in e-commerce and has ordered the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning to create an ActiveX-free solution. The minister in charge of that portfolio, Choi Moon-ki, said the government is working closely with financial regulators to devise a solution, but did not give a timetable to completion.

But until a solution to Korea’s ActiveX mire is devised, the country’s Mac users will have to rely on partition manager and bootstrapping app Boot Camp — which occupies a prominent position on shelves of every Apple retailer in the country.

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