Academic journal article Development and Society

Understanding Civic Engagement in the Smartphone Era: Corporate Sphere vs. Public Sphere

Academic journal article Development and Society

Understanding Civic Engagement in the Smartphone Era: Corporate Sphere vs. Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the late 1990s, mobile technologies, now primarily smartphones, have become some of the most significant technologies for people's daily activities. Mobile technologies have greatly contributed to the growth of new digital economy and culture in many countries. Due to the significance of the smartphone, several countries around the world have developed a mobile handset subsidy program. It has been important for both the government and mobile telecommunications corporations to introduce the mobile handset subsidy program, in particular, in the early stage of the mobile era, and again now during the smartphone era, because they plan to promote the adoption of new technologies.1

In the mobile communication service industry, a mobile handset subsidy has been used as a key marketing strategy to attract consumers and to increase market penetration (Kim et al. 2004). Taking Europe as an example, Gruber (1999, p. 533) points out, "subsidizing handsets for a new subscriber is essentially a means of lowering the cost of the subscriber's entry to the mobile phone market." Kim et al. (2004, p. 24) also argue that "the new entrants in the mobile communication service market have made their top priority attracting new customers as well as luring subscribers away from other carriers. For them, the mobile handset subsidy can easily become a direct method of competition." In a bid to lock customers into long-term contracts, for example, America's preeminent wireless carriers have had a history of subsidizing the phones that the masses want. As of May 2014, a brand new iPhone is $599 or more, but with subsidies, American customers can buy it for $199 (Murph 2014).

As in many other countries, Korea has provided mobile handset subsidies since 1997 when mobile communication carriers offered subsidies with an obligatory contractual subscription period.2 As expected, the handset subsidy helped underpin the rapid expansion of the number of mobile communication subscribers and the domestic mobile handset manufacturing industry. Unlike other countries, Korea has also developed handset subsidy programs for resolving the digital divide between handset-haves and handset have-nots; therefore, the handset subsidy program in the Korean context has fulfilled not only as commercial but also political purposes.

However, the current Park Geun-hye government (2013-2018) has introduced a new approach to the mobile subsidy system, because it has wanted to control subsidies since October 2014. The government believed that handset subsidies had not been fairly actualized, nor resolved the digital divide; therefore, citizens did not benefit from the subsidy. The Park government pushed through with the enactment of the Terminal Distribution Structure Improvement Act (hereafter the Terminal Act) in an effort to normalize the terminal distribution market and to reduce damages incurred by consumers due to the overheated competition over non-transparent, discriminatory price discounts. The relevant bill planned to prohibit discriminatory price discounts to ensure equity for all consumers and required phone businesses to make the structure of price discounts transparent by serving a public notice on the conditions for price discounts in Korea (National Council of Consumer Organizations 2014). The Terminal Act has not actualized the original plan due to severe opposition, in particular from Samsung, which has consequently ignited several critical debates and civil engagements due to its importance in the era of smartphones and social media.

This paper analyzes the interplay between the government, civil groups-certain type of organizations whose official purpose is to enhance community affairs, including public affairs, through volunteer work by the members-, telecommunications corporations, and users in order to determine power negotiation among these major players, in particular between a corporate sphere and a public sphere in the process of the establishment of the Terminal Act. …

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