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Naver founder responds to news scandal

In hearing, Lee Hae-jin says algorithm ought to be made public
Oct 31,2017
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Executives from major tech companies attend a hearing of the Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, on Monday. Attendees included KT CEO Hwang Chang-gyu, at podium, and starting from fourth from right in the second row, Richard Yoon, head of Apple Korea; Lee Hae-jin, founder of Naver; Koh Dong-jin, president of Samsung Electronics’ mobile business; and Kwon Young-soo, vice chairman of LG U+. [YONHAP]
Lee Hae-jin, founder of internet giant Naver, said he “personally agreed” with the idea of publicizing the website’s news feed algorithm on Monday during a routine legislative hearing in which allegations of the company burying news in response to corporate pressure were discussed.

“It’s a socially crucial issue,” he told lawmakers. “If the possibility of the algorithm being abused by an external force is excluded, providing the algorithm to the public and having it assessed objectively would be a nice picture in the long term.”

Lee’s comments could reverse policies at the country’s most influential platform for news. Naver’s website is how most Koreans access stories from hundreds of Korean media outlets, but it has been marred in the past by controversy about how stories are curated on the page. The latest fracas involves Naver allegedly burying an article unfavorable toward the Korean football league after a sports official made a call to the website. Lee on Monday apologized for the scandal.

The reclusive 50-year-old founder, who is now in charge of Naver’s overseas business, rarely makes public appearances, but his attendance at the hearing was requested by the National Assembly’s Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee.

Lee conceded to the argument that Naver should be a fair media platform, but also tried to distance the company from the media, arguing that it does not produce news. “Although it’s a matter to be decided by Naver CEO Han Seong-sook, I think news allocation should be managed by an external party,” he said.

Naver, which has more than 70 percent market share in Korean search engines, has long faced allegations of biased news curation and continually promised active countermeasures. The founder’s comments raised hopes of change at the country’s largest internet giant, which is now trying to transform itself into an artificial intelligence powerhouse on par with Google for long-term growth.

The routine legislative hearing, held every year as part of a parliamentary audit, included a cast of high-profile executives from Korea’s top tech firms, including Koh Dong-jin, president of Samsung Electronics’ mobile business division; Hwang Chang-gyu, chairman of KT, Korea’s second-largest telecom company; Kwon Young-soo, vice chairman of LG U+, the third-largest telecom; John Lee, head of Google Korea; and Cho Young-bum, head of Facebook Korea.

The list of attendees was exceptional given the busy schedule of tech executives. An agreement between three political parties to implicate anyone who refuses to take part in the hearing might have played a role.

Aside from the Naver scandal, the hearing touched on a wide variety of topics including telecom fees. Samsung’s Koh was asked his opinion of separating phone manufacturers from cellular service providers so that customers in Korea can purchase unlocked Samsung phones.

Koh said he could not offer an answer but was willing to discuss the issue with stakeholders involved.


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