South Korea is threatening to jail selfie stick retailers

Not approved for use in South Korea.
Not approved for use in South Korea.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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The South Korean government is going after sellers of uncertified camera extenders, threatening fines of up to 30 million won ($27,000) or prison time of as long as three years. According to Korea’s Ministry of Science, “selfie sticks” that have bluetooth functionality should be classified as frequency-emitting communications equipment and go through rounds of testing before being approved for commercial sale. On Thursday, the government asked citizens to help “root out” the distribution of these unapproved bluetooth-equipped selfie sticks by reporting on such sales. On Friday, authorities said they would begin doing checks on retailers.

The government appears to be worried about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation, also created by mobile phones, though at low levels it is generally not seen as harmful. Under Korea’s ”Wireless Telegraphy Act” all devices that give off electromagnetic waves must be certified for national security and civilian use.

But internet users interpreted the crackdown as yet another example of government intervention in their online electronic habits. Camera extender sticks are hugely popular in the country where the term sel ca for “self camera” first became popular in the 1990s, long before smartphones were ubiquitous and the term “selfie” was coined. After decades of authoritarian rule until the 1980s, South Koreans citizens are particularly jittery about heavy handed government regulation and intrusion on their personal lives. In September, news of the government’s “cyber investigation team” led to fears of official snooping into personal messages on the chat app KakaoTalk, and caused users to flock to foreign messaging apps not easily accessed by the government.

This week’s selfie stick announcements raised similar fears. “So customers are subjects of control again?” one blogger wrote (link in Korean) on the South Korean blogging forum, Naver. Bloggers also criticized what they saw as a hit against small retailers selling selfie sticks. One wrote, “Are the big corporations now going to sell selfie sticks? …This money-crazed government.” Another, referring to president Park Geun-Hye’s push for building a “creative economy” based on innovation and entrepreneurship, speculated that the government is seeking new ways to extract fees from retailers, “Creative economy? More like creative taxes.”