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Naver faces allegations of burying news stories

Oct 25,2017
Naver, a major platform for online news, is under fire for bowing to corporate pressure after a local sports news outlet revealed last week that the website had intentionally buried a news story unfavorable toward the Korean football league.

Han Seong-sook, Naver’s chief executive, quickly issued an apology the day the story broke, but it didn’t stop further speculation that Korea’s largest internet company might have engaged in systemic news curation based on corporate influence.

Last Friday, MBC Sports Plus News, a local sports channel, reported that a head of public relations at the K League had requested the managing director in charge of sports news at Naver rearrange articles on the landing page so that a story critical of the Korean football league published by the online outlet OhMyNews would receive less exposure.

The story appeared at 9:55 a.m. on Oct. 3 on Naver’s sports section and received a flood of reactions and comments from readers until 12:44 p.m., when the page’s layout suddenly changed and the article was no longer clearly visible on the page.

It was around that time, the report said, that the Naver director received the request from the K League.

The report included photos of text messages exchanged between the K League official and Naver director as evidence.

Han, the CEO of Naver, issued an apology four hours after the MBC report aired.

“We have found out through an internal probe that an employee in charge of Naver’s sports section partly accepted an external request to realign news articles,” she said.

On behalf of the company, Han apologized for failing to abide by Naver’s promise of transparent service and pledged to properly handle the issue.

The CEO brushed off the possibility that other news sections dedicated to politics and social affairs might be influenced by corporate pressure, saying the sports news incident occurred because Naver had a partnership with sports organizations like the K League.

Her comments appear to be a deflection from more controversial matters. A study released last December by the Korea Internet Self-governance Organization, a think tank funded by major internet businesses, revealed Naver had implemented the practice of removing suggested keywords in searches at the request of businesses and universities.

Naver, which has more than 70 percent market share of search engines, has long faced allegations of biased news curation and responded by releasing statement after statement promising proactive countermeasures, though Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the Bareun Party, a minor party in the National Assembly, said during a legislative hearing Tuesday that Naver had not done enough to resolve the issue.

The main reason the public remains suspicious is because the website keeps its news algorithm and search suggestion data secret. No one outside Naver knows the qualifications of the workers in charge of news curation and how much a computer system is involved in the process.

Many in Korea believe those in power, namely politicians and company executives, can peddle influence on Naver when keywords or news articles work negatively against them.

In particular, conservative parties, currently in the opposition, are battering the company for the practice, as they sense the website has a tendency to plug more pro-government content.

Members of the National Assembly’s Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee are demanding that Lee Hae-jin, Naver’s founder and executive director, appear at a legislative hearing on Oct. 30 to discuss the issue. They’re considering filing a request with prosecutors to investigate the company.

Lee did not present himself at a hearing that took place on Oct. 12, citing a business trip to Europe. He has been trying to help grow Naver’s foothold in Europe, meeting with government officials and start-up leaders in the region.


BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]