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Kakao co-founder steps down after messenger app fails to police pornography

Co-founder and former CEO of Kakao, developer of South Korea's most popular messenging app, will be leaving the company on Saturday.

Lee Sir-goo, co-CEO of Kakao, speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2014.
Manuel Blondeau/AOP.Press/Corbis

Lee Sir-goo, co-founder of Kakao, the developer of South Korea's widely used KakaoTalk messenger, is leaving the company he helped build following a controversy regarding the circulation of pornography through the app, the Korea Herald reports.

The former CEO was last week indicted by the Suwon Prosecution Service without detention on charges of not doing enough to block obscene content from being distributed on KakaoGroup, a mobile app suite that includes the popular KakaoTalk and other private and group communication tools. Lee headed the company from August of 2011 until it merged with Daum, South Korea's second largest Internet search portal, in October last year.

South Korean persecution authorities began a probe into the company in July 2014, investigating a case in which 10,000 mostly teenage users allegedly exchanged lewd content. Lee's indictment represented the first time in South Korea that prosecutors held an ISP responsible for teenagers having access to adult pictures and videos.

Though its citizens have access to the world's fastest Internet, South Korea isn't home to the world's freest Internet. E-content is often censored if deemed pornographic, harmful to minors or if it's classified as "subversive communication."

Under the Youth Protection Act, unless there are overriding technical reasons making it impossible to monitor a service, the ISP is responsible for both monitoring and filtering out lewd content, and then reporting it to police. Prosecutors had accused Kakao, and by extension Lee, of failing to do that.

"Lee said he would like to take on new challenges," a Kakao spokesperson told the Korea Herald, adding that he's scheduled to finish at the company on Saturday. Last week, CNET Korea reported that Lee faces up to three years in prison or a fine of as much as 20 million won ($16,600, AU$23,500, £11,000).

The company last Thursday issued the following statement:

"Kakao is taking all possible technical measures as a service provider to prevent the distribution of pornography on its services. KakaoGroup, the service in question, already has in place preventive measures including setting adult keywords as banned words, so that groups or files including such keywords cannot be shared on the service. Kakao also limits or blocks users reported by others for inappropriate action (content posting) from continuing use of the service, in effort to prevent future or continued exposure of inappropriate content."

One of the world's most popular instant messangers, Kakao Talk at last count was used by 93 percent of smartphone users in South Korea.