Taming the Internet

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Taming the Internet

Suggestive terms like “room salon” (a Korean hostess bar) and condoms were linked on the Internet to high-profile politicians Ahn Cheol-soo and Park Geun-hye before they declared presidential bids. “Ahn Cheol-soo room salon” became the top search term on the largest Korean-language portal site, Naver, after a news magazine reported that Ahn was entertained in a room salon.

An Internet Web site is required to verify the age of a user for access to adult terms like room salon, which is usually connect with female hostesses of dubious virtue.

In today’s Internet-dominated world, search rankings are not to be taken lightly. Politicians are questioning the political partiality of Web sites, but search neutrality has long been debated in the United States and Europe. Internet search engines like Google and Yahoo have become global giants with vast power over the access to information in cyberspace. They rake up billions of dollars in revenues from dominance of searches and search advertising. They can exploit searches and secondary services for their own good and to harm competitors. Their self-serving business practices can undermine fair competition and consumers’ rights to choice.

Local Web portals and search engines enjoy complete freedom due to a hands-off policy by government authorities as a part of an encouragement of the online industry, which is considered a vital part of Korea’s future. They also have legal protection on the grounds of freedom of expression.

It is hard to differentiate information and facts from advertisements and promotions on the Internet. Overseas, multinational search engines like Google are engrossed in litigation with authorities over its neutrality and anti-competitive practices. The European Commission has investigated Google on complaints that it manipulated search results to promote its own services and demote those of its competitors. Since 2002, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requires portals to differentiate search information and advertising.

Google now reveals some things about how it ranks search results but local Internet portals keep everything secret. Some list merchants on their maps for free while others carry their names after auctioning off the placements. They appropriate or exclude links of products and sellers according to their business interests.

Existing regulations and fair trade rules are insufficient to uphold fair competition on the Internet. It is best that portal sites come up with their own sets of rules and guidelines for transparency. They should at least inform users what is information and what is advertising and unveil their ranking guidelines. The Korea Communications Commission should prohibit search manipulation and set up a board to settle disputes on search neutrality. Authorities have to consider acting so that cyberspace does not turn into the Wild West.

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