Why 'buggy', 'defunct' Internet Explorer lives on in high-tech South Korea
A country known for blazing broadband and innovative devices remains tethered to a browser that most of the world abandoned long ago.
In South Korea, one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, there are few limits to what can be done conveniently online – except if you are using the wrong web browser.
On Google Chrome, you cannot make business payments online as a corporate customer of one of the country’s largest foreign-owned banks. If you are using Apple’s Safari, you are unable to apply for artist funding through the National Culture and Arts website. And if you are a proprietor of a child care facility, registering your organisation with the Health and Welfare Ministry’s website is not possible on Mozilla’s Firefox.
In all of these cases, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or a similar alternative, is the required browser.
When Microsoft shut down Internet Explorer, or IE, on Jun 15, the company said it would start redirecting users to its newer Edge browser in the coming months. The announcement inspired jokes and memes commemorating the internet of yesteryear. But in South Korea, IE is not some online artifact. The defunct browser is still needed for a small number of critical banking and government-related tasks that many people cannot live without.
South Korea’s fealty to Internet Explorer, 27 years after its introduction and now into its retirement, presents a heavy dose of irony: A country known for blazing broadband and innovative devices is tethered to a buggy and insecure piece of software abandoned by most of the world long ago.
Most South Korean websites work on every browser, including Google Chrome, which takes up about 54 per cent of the country’s internet usage. Internet Explorer is less than 1 per cent, according to Statcounter. And yet after the announcement from Microsoft, there was a last-minute scramble among some essential sites to prepare for life after IE.
The South Korean arm of the British bank Standard Chartered warned corporate customers in May that they would need to start using the Edge browser in “IE mode” to access its “Straight2Bank” internet banking platform. Various Korean government websites told users that some services would likely face disruptions if they did not switch to Edge.
In May, Naver, one of Korea’s biggest internet companies, highlighted a feature of its Whale browser that allows access to sites that required Internet Explorer. Kim Hyo, who heads Naver’s Whale team, said the company had originally added the option in 2016. He thought it would no longer be needed when Microsoft shut down IE.
But as the final days approached, Kim realised that some Korean websites would not make the switch in time, so he kept the feature and changed its name to “Internet Explorer mode.” Modernising websites that had catered to IE for decades was “quite a large task,” he said, and some sites “just missed the deadline.”
South Korea’s reliance on Internet Explorer dates back to the 1990s when the country became a forerunner in using the internet for banking and shopping. In order to protect online transactions, the government passed a law in 1999 requiring encrypted digital certificates for any matter that had previously called for a person’s signature.
Verifying a person’s identity required additional software that connected to the browser, known as a plug-in. The South Korean government authorised five companies to issue such digital certificates using a Microsoft plug-in called ActiveX. But the plug-in only worked on Internet Explorer.
At the time, using a Microsoft plug-in seemed like an obvious choice. Microsoft Windows software ruled the personal computer market in the 1990s, and Internet Explorer had leveraged that position to become the dominant browser. Because key Korean websites required IE, other websites began catering to Microsoft’s browser, reinforcing its importance. By one estimate, Internet Explorer had 99 per cent market share in Korea between 2004 and 2009.
“We were really the only game in town,” said James Kim, who led Microsoft in South Korea from 2009 to 2015. Kim, who now heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, South Korea, said Microsoft did not try to thwart the competition, but a lot of things “didn’t work” without IE. Kim Keechang, a law professor at Korea University in Seoul, said Internet Explorer’s stranglehold on South Korea was so complete in the early 2000s that most South Koreans “couldn’t name another browser.”
When Kim returned to South Korea in 2002 after teaching abroad, he discovered that he could not do anything online with his computer running Linux, a free, open-source alternative to Windows, and Firefox. Every year, he went to an internet cafe to access a computer with IE in order to file his taxes on a government site.
In 2007, Kim filed a lawsuit against the Korea Financial Telecommunications & Clearings Institute, one of the five government-approved private companies assigned to issue digital certificates. He argued that the company, which issued about 80 per cent of South Korea’s certificates, had unjustly discriminated against him by not allowing other browsers.
Over a three-year period, Kim lost the case, lost the appeal and lost at the country’s Supreme Court. But his court battle drew broader attention to the pitfalls of South Korea’s system, especially after a 2009 cyberattack exploited ActiveX to spread malware on Korean computers.
With the advent of smartphones, an industry built on software from Apple and Google, South Korea, like much of the world, started to reduce its reliance on Microsoft. In 2010, the country issued guidelines that government websites should be compatible with three different web browsers. But changing the plumbing of South Korea’s internet was not easy – especially as banks and credit card companies stood by the existing system.
As public opinion shifted, users bristled at the inconvenience of needing to use ActiveX to buy things online. Critics argued that the technology had failed to meet its purpose because the plug-in software had actually made users less safe.
Microsoft introduced Edge in 2015 as a replacement for Internet Explorer, and the company said it was not supporting ActiveX in the new browser. Chrome became the country’s top browser three years earlier.
In 2020, South Korea amended the 1999 law to eliminate the need for digital certificates, a move that seemed to close the book on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. That same year, Microsoft started removing support for IE in some of its online services. A year later, the company announced that it planned to retire Internet Explorer altogether. While much of the world joked about Internet Explorer’s demise, one South Korean engineer marked the occasion in a more somber way.
Jung Ki-young, a 39-year-old software developer, erected a tombstone for IE on the rooftop of his older brother’s cafe in Gyeongju, a city on Korea’s southeastern coast around 170 miles from Seoul. He paid US$330 (S$464) for the monument, which was engraved with the browser’s recognisable “e” logo and an inscription: “He was a good tool to download other browsers.”
Jung said he had his share of frustrations with Internet Explorer, but he felt the browser that had introduced so many South Koreans to the web deserved a proper goodbye. “Using Internet Explorer was difficult and frustrating, but it also served a good purpose,” Jung said. “I don’t feel good about just retiring it with a ‘we don’t need you anymore’ attitude.”
By Daisuke Wakabayashi and Jin Yu Young © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.