“I WAS taken aback by the deletion, because I did not insult anyone or use foul language,” said an anonymous 37-year-old worker in his interview with Korea JoongAng Daily earlier this year. He had posted a comment which criticized President Moon Jae-in’s cabinet appointments on Naver, one of South Korea’s most influential Web portals. He claimed that the comment was deleted from the Web portal less than an hour after it was posted. In response to such accusations of arbitrary censorship and content manipulation, Naver introduced new cyberspace monitoring features in June 2017. These new policies have once again sparked heated debate about the balance between cyberspace monitoring and freedom of speech on Web portals.
Naver has long been accused of censorship
South Korea’s leading Web portal Naver often faces accusations of manipulating its Real-time Rising Keywords* and censoring user comments that are unfavorable to the government or corporate behemoths. Such suspicions stem from the sudden disappearance of particular keywords or comments, frequently observed by users. Indeed, the allegations were buttressed when Korea Internet Self-governance Organization (KISO) reported 1,408 cases of Naver’s keyword omissions just within the period of January to May 2016.
According to Yonhap News, an internal censorship policy since 2012 has been allowing Naver to delete or omit particular keywords from the Real-time Rising Keywords “upon request of administrative or judicial authorities.” The disclosure caused much controversy, especially because the policy had been created in a presidential election year. Critics argue that the policy renders Naver vulnerable to external pressures, limiting the Web portal’s capacity to fulfil its social responsibility to be fair and balanced in exercising its agenda-setting power.
In response to such criticisms, Naver emphasized that keywords can only be omitted to the extent that they can be classified as “private information disclosure,” “defamation,” “illegalities and criminal acts,” “commercial or deliberate misuse,” “impediment to service quality,” or “obscenity.” Similar standards of removal are applied to Naver’s user comments. Prior to the new censorship features introduced in June 2017, Naver’s censorship of user comments had operated solely through the “report” feature. If users disapprove a particular comment for reasons such as offensive language, defamation or illegal advertisements, they can click on the “report” button to request for the removal of the comment. Upon such user requests, Naver determines whether the offensiveness of the comment is serious enough to justify its removal. Comments that are classified into one of the categories above can be directly removed by Naver. However, Naver’s statistics from its official blog show that only 23% of the reported comments actually end up being removed, since many of the requests are merely based upon disagreement, rather than offence or illegality.
The legality of censorship
Naver assures the public that such censorship policies are only used to control the potential circulation of illegal user-generated contents (UGC). Under the current Protection of Rights in Information and Communications Network clause, “No user may circulate any information violative of other person’s rights,” such as “invasion of privacy and defamation.” The clause further states that the “provider of information and communications services shall make efforts” to prevent such information from being circulated through the “network operated and managed by it.” This not only allows but also obligates Naver to implement a consistent censorship mechanism for maintaining a healthy public environment online.
The constitutional right to freedom of speech and press moreover is not unlimited. The right to free speech is often claimed to counter cyberspace censorship. Yet according to Article 21 of the South Korean constitution, speech and press shall neither violate “the honor or rights of other persons” nor “undermine public morals or social ethics.” The constitutional limitation on the freedom of speech and press provides a strong foundation for cyberspace censorship in South Korea.
Whilst some censorship may be inevitable to protect other person’s rights and uphold public morals however, determining which comments constitute offensiveness or defamation can be an arbitrary process. Although Naver defends its censorship policies based upon respective laws, many argue that the scope of Naver’s censorship rules is too broad due to the ambiguity of the language. This leaves room for potential misapplication of the rule and creates the danger of arbitrary censorship, which violates the fundamental right to freedom of speech and press. Since Naver is the ultimate decision-maker of which content is to be censored, there are no systematic checks in place to counter the potential exploitation of its potent agenda-setting function. Thus Naver continues to be criticized on the lack of transparency in its decision-making process.
Naver’s new features – transparency or tyranny?
One Naver official denied accusations of arbitrary censorship to CBS Nocutnews, claiming that Naver could not afford the risk of losing credibility from its consumers, due to the low entry barrier of the Web portal market. Rather, they are seeking to enhance transparency through various measures, such as operating Artificial Intelligence (AI) based personalization systems. For example, the AI Recommender System (AiRS), which was introduced in February 2017, automatically accounts for the user’s tastes and tailors the display accordingly. According to Naver, the automatic nature of the system makes manual intervention and censorship “absolutely impossible,” reports CBS Nocutnews.
More recently, Naver has revised its user comment censorship policies. On June 22, Naver added new user comment features on top of its original ones in the hope of enhancing transparency and credibility. Firstly, Naver now reveals the statistical record on the removed comments. This means that on top of the comments section of every article, the number of “self-deleted comments by the user,” “comments deleted by Naver based on Information and Communications Network law,” and “automatically hidden comments based on fold comment requests” are displayed respectively. With this new feature, Naver hopes to do away with the suspicions that comments are removed on an arbitrary basis by Naver alone.
The other notable new feature is the most controversial of all. Naver has added a “fold comment” feature on top of the initial “report” feature. With the new feature, readers can choose to “fold” the comments that they disapprove. When a certain number of readers disapprove, the comments are automatically hidden from all other users. The new feature differs significantly from the old “report” feature, since the decision to hide certain comments is entirely up to the users themselves, without any form of intervention from Naver. Naver explains that the hidden comments are not deleted, and any user can request to “unfold” the hidden comments. This feature can enhance user-autonomy and consumer-choice by reflecting their choices more quickly and accurately over which comments are considered appropriate in cyberspace.
Naver’s new “fold comment” feature has attracted many criticisms. Skeptics point to the anti-democratic repercussions of this new feature, such as exacerbating the problem of the tyranny of the majority. They argue that the voice of the minority will be easily suppressed by the majority, which infringes upon their right to free speech. The public in turn loses from the feature, since the silencing of the minority voices will result in less diversity of opinions. Others worry that the new feature makes Naver even more vulnerable to deliberate media manipulation during political campaigns, since unfavorable comments can now simply be “hidden” in the absence of sufficient legal grounds.
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With great power comes great responsibility. Naver’s standing as one of the most influential South Korean Web portal assigns to it the duty to be fair and neutral in its representation of information and public opinion. Naver’s shaping of its monitoring and censorship policies must undergo careful scrutiny in order to achieve the right balance between freedom of speech, public security, and user functionality.
*Real-time Rising Keywords: A Web portal feature through which the 10 most searched keywords are displayed on a real-time basis