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South Korea: Search Engine Censorship Claims

As South Korea's biggest search engines file an anti-competition charge against Google, net users have started to look back at the various companies’ contributions to the Korean net environment. The nation's most visited portal, Naver, has come under particular fire for alleged news screening and censorship of information, along with its monopoly in the field.

Google pressure?

Two of the biggest Korean search engine operators, Naver (NHN) and Daum filed a claim with the Korean Fair Trade Commission on April 15, 2011, alleging that Google had pressured Android phone manufacturers to block them from installing its rivals’ search engines or applications. Google brushed aside the claim on April 18, saying mobile carriers and phone manufacturers have full choice in deciding what to install on the Android phones.

Naver and Google's mobile applications. Image by author.

Naver and Google's mobile applications. Image by author.

Naver's staff said in an interview with local newspaper [ko] that Google had abused it power with regards to manufacturers who plan to install search engines other than its own, by delaying the period of the so-called compatibility test suite, or CTS. Manufacturers must take the test in order to acquire certification to load the Google application.

Google has a 20 percent mobile market share in South Korea and only 2 percent in the fixed line search, while Naver and Daum's search engines account for about 90 percent of the fixed line internet searches combined. (Naver's share is over 70 percent overall).

Koreans, who usually support local brands, have criticized Naver instead of Google, for abusing its power not only on the IT field but also in the media industry.

Search engine media power

Naver's newscasting of local media outlets creates huge viewership, big enough to bring major changes in Korean media landscape.

South Korean internet-based citizen/blogger news site, Wiki Tree commented [ko] that since most news articles’ page views came from the Naver newscast page, media companies acknowledging this fact, have came up with more provocative and sensational news titles.

To convert the page views via Naver to lucrative advert click counts, media companies plaster their news pages with tawdry flash adverts with pornography-like revealing images from diet supplement manufacturer or gruesome images from dental clinics.

Sample of Internet news adverts. Captured from local newspaper outlet Hankooki.com. Criticism of Hankook newspaper not intended.

Sample of Internet news adverts. Captured from local newspaper outlet Hankooki.com. Criticism of Hankook newspaper not intended.

Blogger Havnpark wrote [ko] a post entitled ‘How can we understand Naver's Power?':

우리나라 포털 사이트는 네이버와 다음, 이 두 양대산맥이 움직이고 있다고 해도 과언이 아니다.[…] 네이버에 지나치게 많은 정보가 유입되면서 네이버는 정보를 중개하는 기능을 넘어, 정보를 통제하고 가공하는 역할을 하고 있다. […] 네이버의 ‘보이지 않는 손은’ 여전히 활동중이다. […]
최근 적지 않은 논란과 의문을 낳고 있는 검색 노출법 변화가 대표적이다.[…] 뉴스 검색에서 일부 매체의 기사가 정확도 상에서는 검색되지 않는 경우가 있어, 관계자들의 의구심을 사고 있다.

Korea's portal space is ruled by two titans, Naver and Daum. […] As too much information has been injected to Naver, it has passed the point where Naver was a mere middleman of the information and [it has] become a manager who censors and edits the information. […] Naver's ‘Invisible Hand’ is still operating. […]

What ignited controversies and raised questions nowadays, is Naver's shift in the search method. […]  Some media outlets’ articles were left out in its news search and related people have started raising suspicions.

Naver's ‘Invisible Hand’

Last week, Naver was severely criticized in blogs and on the Twittersphere by allegations suggesting that they had intentionally removed a hard-core progressive media platform, the Voice of People (VOP) [ko] from their newscast list. People were puzzled since VOP has a strong reputation in the online news industry. It was ranked as the top internet-based news media [ko] in 2010.

Yu Chang-seon (@changseon) who has worked in the broadcasting field over several decades and is now reporting as a one-man media outlet, tweeted [ko]:

민중의 소리가 네이버 뉴스캐스트 선정에서 또 탈락했다고 한다. 트래픽 수나 기사의 질로 봤을 때, 형평성에 문제가 있는 듯하다. 정부가 싫어하는 기사가 많아서? 아님 이름 때문에? […]

The Voice of People has again failed in making into the Naver's newscast list. Based on its traffic and quality of its articles, Naver's decision seems unfair. Was it because it has many anti-government articles? Or because of its name?

[Note: The Korean word ‘민중’ (People) in the VOP is perceived as more political term than the neutral term ‘people’. The word is often used under a context reporting ‘a crowd of people’ gathered for a movement or protests.]

It is not 100 percent clear that Naver screened VOP because of its political stance. Other progressive media who often harshly criticize the government, such as Kyunghyang, Ohmynews and Pressian are still being displayed in the newscast alongside conservative media outlets.

Blogger Photohistory argued [ko] that angry net users know only one side of the story:

전화가 나서 네이버에 따졌고 네이버 고객센터는 저에게 그 답변을 했습니다. 민중의 소리가 최근에 뉴스검색에서 빠진 것은 민중의 소리가 […] 비슷한 기사를 자꾸 재전송을 해서 다른 뉴스기사가 노출되는데 방해가 되었고 그런 이유 때문에 네이버는 민중의 소리에 뉴스기사 재전송하지 말고 수정하라고 연락을 했습니다. 하지만 민중의 소리는 그 네이버측의 수정요구를 늦게 받아 들였고 어쩔수 없이 네이버는 뉴스기사 검색에서 민중의 소리를 뺐다는 것 입니다.

Enraged, I questioned Naver and got the answer from its customer service center. The reason VOP was left out from the news search was because they submitted similar articles too many times. Such behavior blocked other media's articles from getting web exposure. So, Naver asked them to not to resubmit similar articles and to make adjustments. As VOP made a delay in accepting Naver's call for correction, it had no choice but to remove VOP from its news search list.

Nonetheless, one thing people have reached a consensus is that Naver has started wielding tremendous power in the journalism industry. Blogger Yoizu posted [ko] VOP's Editing Manager, Kim Dong-hyun's email, explaining the situation:

네이버에서 당장 민중의소리를 쫓아내지는 않을 것 같습니다. 하지만 언제든지 네이버가 마음을 먹으면 민중의소리를 쫓아내는 건 일도 아니라는 것을 알았습니다.‘네이버에서 민중의소리 기사가 검색되지 않는다.’ 만약 그렇게 된다면 네이버 검색은 정상적인 검색인지도 의문스럽습니다.

I don't think Naver will kick VOP out right away. But it has made very clear that Naver can remove us anytime they want. If we cannot see VOP's articles from Naver's news search, then can we say that Naver’ search is working properly?

No legs to stand on?

Korean IT people have defined Naver's move as ‘the pot calling the kettle black‘, reminding of the company's record in devouring new-born internet ventures, such as small-scaled internet shopping sites, e-real estate sites and mapping services. A social media and brand marketing expert, Lee Jang-woo (@leejangwoo) tweeted [ko]:

네이버가 며칠전에 구글을 독과점등으로 공정거래위에 제소했었는데. 과연 일리있는 행동? 압도적인 1등이 3등업체를 모바일검색 땜에! 네이버 땜에 시달리는 다른 한국업체들은 어떻게 해야하나요?

Naver brought Google into the Fair Trade Commission few days ago, under the charge that it had abused its monopoly power. Is this a rational move, the prevailing top company suing the third ranking company only for its share on mobile search market? How other Korean companies would take this?

It has been quite a while since Koreans have been able to search Naver's contents from Google. A Bloter article [ko], which was actually called ‘The Pot Calling the Kettle Black’, pointed out that Google's CTS process has indeed limited phone manufacturers’ freedom by leaving them with no option but to install Google's applications first. But the report did not justify Naver's record of abusing power over small IT businesses.

Kunoo (@peilkai) tweeted [ko] that the net users and advertisement agencies’ heavy dependence on Naver has given birth to the problem:

네이버의 구글 제소건으로 논란이 되었는데 네이버도 문제지만 사용자, 광고주도 생각 바꿔야. 만약 포털 없어지면 마케팅 자생력은 있는지 냉정해져야. […]

Naver's appeal to the government on Google has sparked controversies. It is not only Naver's fault but also the users and ad agency's problem. They should change their minds and ask themselves seriously whether they are able to stand on their own when the portals vanish. […]

Global IT brands have met with huge backlash in South Korea, not from the country's people but from its government. In January 2011, Google got involved in another anti-competition case as the National Police Agency found it had illegally collected personal data for its Street View map service.

Facebook, in December 2010, had a bout with the Korea Communications Commission as, back then, it refused to comply with South Korean privacy laws which require the companies to ask for users’ consent before getting their personal data.

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