The argument over news carried and circulated through Web portals has been going on for the last decade. It starts with the simple question of defining news available on portals and whether portals should be regarded as media outlets. The argument would be different if portals took up the traditional journalistic function of filtering and editing news to shape public opinion. Scholars at home and abroad agree that Web portals in some ways play the gate-keeping role of filtering information for the public. Whether through automation or by human agency, the content is uploaded. We must contemplate the social role and responsibility by first defining whether the source is a publisher or merely a digital intermediary.
If Internet portals are viewed as part of the press, they must not be regulated under the rights of free expression. Few governments around the world control or regulate news organizations, which are regularly given a constitutional guarantee of free expression. Korea has a somewhat unusual law about newspaper organizations that require publishers of printed and online news to register. The law also lists protection of expression, industrial promotion and social responsibility for the industry. The regulations are mostly guidelines.
The situation is quite different for the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors, which require approval and licensing from the government. Broadcasting comes under heavy scrutiny for the information it releases to the public. The call for regulation of news carried by Internet portals would stem from the view that they, too, are in the broadcasting realm. But broadcasting and the Internet are entirely different media forms. Unlike broadcasting, the Internet is free and unfettered without constraints on the users and providers. It is not entirely unregulated. Portals come under antitrust regulations and the Telecommunications Law. Random editing of news articles can also infringe on copyright regulations.
Under the Newspaper Law, portals fit into the category of online news providers. They do not produce content, but they carry content and therefore must answer to the responsibilities of news design and packaging, as well as press arbitration regulations for any defamatory statements. The dispute about portals’ journalistic role is therefore meaningless.
Neutrality in news presentations requires monitoring, especially considering the portals’ influence. But Internet news censorship would only trigger political wrangling between rival parties, as fairness is often questioned when censorship is applied in broadcasting. There must a social consensus on the guidelines and means of judging fairness in Internet news presentations.
Many experts have been calling for a voluntary ombudsmanship to ensure a third eye on online news. Portal majors like Naver and Daum published their editing policies and formed advisory committees, but their endeavors have not convinced the public. They must ask themselves why they are not trusted by the public. They must be more active in self-regulatory activities by issuing regular reports on monitoring results.
The British Office of Communications is deliberating on whether to include search engines in its media pluralism policy because of the powerful influence of digital intermediaries in the Internet age. Scholars are also working to come up with regulatory frameworks to ensure net neutrality. But all our talk about regulating portal news skirts the key issues of media pluralism or neutrality. There is no interest in building a fair competitive news community in the Internet. What is more important is that the Internet medium remains diverse in opinions, and information is not to be blocked by any particular group. Internet portals must keep news searches open without any control or interference. News displays must hinge on quality and appeal to the readership. Various profit models must also be experimented with to devise a win-win solution between news providers and distributors.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor at the Department of Media and Communications at Konkuk University.
by Hwang Yong-suk