SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Korea Bizwire) — South Korea’s No. 1 portal Naver Corp. is under growing pressure to reinvent itself after admitting to intentionally editing news rankings, industry officials said Thursday, one of the suspicions that has long dogged the company valued at over 26 trillion won (US$23.06 billion).
Naver Sports admitted to rearranging the news list in October last year at the request of an official from football division K League who wanted negative news about the association to be less conspicuously on the portal. The company made the admission, and CEO Han Seong-sook apologized on Friday.
The incident was the first confirmation that Naver intentionally tinkered with its news editing. There were suspicions in 2015 that Samsung Group, South Korea’s largest business conglomerate, pulled strings to erase bad news related to it on the portal.
The company said its news section runs on its own and that the whole incident is the making of an individual in the section, distancing itself from the fiasco. But public trust has been compromised, officials say.
“There is logical doubt that if sports news is edited this easily, then there is no telling what happened with news where interested parties are even more powerful and influential,” an official said.
Main opposition Liberty Korea Party has seized the incident to replay its accusations that Naver and its smaller rival Daum had toyed with news headlines and the editing process in the presidential campaign earlier this year to the party’s disadvantage. The issue is certain to become contested when Naver is due to appear as a witness at the parliamentary audit on Monday. The company’s CEOs rejected the call to show up at the previous audit on Oct. 12.
The portal has been under other suspicions as well. Some in the industry claim it strategically arranges Internet search results to put its own businesses, such as shopping, real estate and online payment sites, at the top over its competitors. The trending searches have turned controversial after certain keywords shoot up or suddenly disappear from the rankings. The company denies the accusations.
Some disciplinary measures have followed. The editing desk for sports was put before the company’s transparency committee, and the individual who did the editing was removed from duty.
But critics in the industry say the actions are not enough.
“An issue like this normally calls for large-scale personnel changes with bone-cutting determination, but the company stopped at reforming its internal organization,” an official said. “I wonder if (Naver) understands the seriousness of the problem.”
Lee Yong-seong, a professor of print and broadcast media at Hanseo University, said Naver’s transparency committee obviously is not producing results.
“Outside experts and users should be invited to the committee, and the committee’s status should be guaranteed by law,” he said.
Naver’s answer to the latest incident has been that it will increase the use of algorithms to minimize reliance on manual operations when deciding what news to place where.
Critics argue that algorithms will not free Naver from responsibility since they, too, are built by its employees.
“There has to be a separate discussion about responsibility since algorithms reflect the intent of the people who make it,” Cho Hwang-gue, a professor at Pusan National University, said. “Outsiders do not get to find out the operational rules of algorithms run by corporations, so the likelihood is that the process will lack transparency.”
He suggests that Naver should open its algorithm principles to at least a few outside specialists and get verification on their fairness.
Naver on Thursday announced its third-quarter operating profit rose 11 percent to 312.1 billion won, with sales leaping 19 percent to 1.2 trillion won. Its market cap as of Wednesday was 27.5 trillion won.