(Yonhap Feature) S. Korean bloggers going through growing pains
By Cynthia Yoo
SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Yonhap) -- Lee Jae-geon didn't mean to become a "power blogger." He rather fell into it, like many in his blogging community. It was about seven years ago, following his army stint, when Lee became interested in cooking and began a small Cyworld blog posting his own recipes. After some time, Cyworld dismantled their blog-service, so Lee moved onto Naver and now he runs blogs on eight separate blog platforms.
Lee, or better known by his blogger handle "Misangyu," makes a living as a freelance food columnist, cooking instructor and writer, in part due to his years of experience as a power blogger. But recently, Misangyu discovered he was being rerferred to as something else: "power broker."
The term "power broker" was coined by the Korean media in response to the BabyRose scandal that broke this past summer. BabyRose is the "wife-logger" ID of 46-year-old Hyun Jin-heui who used to run one of the most popular blogs in Korea, with over 59 million recorded visits and 130,906 subscribers. Her blog has since shut down with a single post of apology to her readers.
BabyRose's blog shut down last summer with a post of apology after a controversial group-buying scheme.
BabyRose's blog has shut down, but there is a growing online cafe "http://cafe.naver.com/kkakmitado" with over 7,000 members. The cafe was created by readers angry with BabyRose for promoting a "group-buying" scheme through her blog, which led 3,300 people to purchase ozone sterilizers, costing some 360,000 won (US$300). The sterilizers were discovered to be faulty and made many users sick.
The cafe members argue that BabyRose brokered "a dirty deal," promoting a disreputable product for months. What outraged these members and many in the public was BabyRose's admission that she received a 20 percent commission on the sale of the ozone sterilizers, allowing her to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on such group-buying deals.
Netizens angered by BabyRose turned their attention to other prominent power bloggers. In the comments threads of the kkakmitado Cafe, members revealed the private information of a popular wife-logger "MyDream," encouraging members to call her workplace and harass her and her family.
The BabyRose debacle not only caught the attention of the netizens but also of the government and the Korean media.
"In one sense, the BabyRose incident made people recognize the influence of such power bloggers," said Myung Seung-eun, chair of the Korea Business Blog Association and a power blogger himself on IT and media issues.
Myung Seung-eun, head of the Korea Business Blog Association, does not approve of the government's response to the power blogger controversy.
Myung, however, disapproves of the Korean government agencies' response to the BabyRose incident.
"The Korea Fair Trade Commission (FTC) is going to term certain bloggers who worked as 'agents' in these online group-buying deals as 'business owners' rather than as 'freelancers' and will force them to pay fines on their reported earnings," said Myung.
Myung's comment proved prescient as last week, the FTC finally announced the results of their investigations. The FTC fined only four "power bloggers," including BabyRose, because they did not clearly disclose their agency relationships to the customers of the group-buying deals. These four bloggers -- Moon Sung-sil (Moon Sung-sil's Delicious Table), BabyRose (Baby Rose's Small Kitchen), Oh Hana (My Dream's Happy Cooking) and Lee Hye-young (Yo Anna's Happiness) -- were fined five million won each ($4,400) in part because they did not apply for a business license as an e-commerce business or direct marketing business.
Some questioned that the fines were too lenient given the large incomes reported by the bloggers. Moon, for instance, reported about 880 million won ($775,000).
Myung answered, "These bloggers were fined leniently in part because the FTC could not find rampant abuses in the industry. After all, only four out of the 1,700 investigated bloggers were actually fined ... and it seemed that many were unaware that they were acting as a business and neither did they consciously try to break the law.
"Thousands of bloggers were given notices from the FTC to give detailed accounts of all their earnings. Was it worth all this trouble for the government to go to such lengths to fine a handful of bloggers?" asked Myung.
Misangyu also received the FTC notice earlier this summer.
FTC's notice to Misangyu
"I was surprised to receive the notice because I didn't think I fell into the same category as BabyRose. I purposely didn't engage in group-buying schemes because I didn't want my blog to become too commercial," explained Misangyu.
Reading the notice, Misangyu remembered that earlier in the year he had participated as a product "sommelier" for a new social commerce site, where he would rate and review their products for a fee. His entire earnings on that project totaled about 600,000 won ($529). Misangyu toyed with the idea of ignoring the notice but saw that he might be fined 10 million won for failure to respond, so he carefully calculated his earnings and mailed off his form.
"Sending off the form, I couldn't shake off feelings of worry," said Misangyu. "I've tried to report honestly and pay my taxes, but I could have made a mistake somewhere and what if I become a target of another investigation? I dread receiving another notice from the tax office."
It was smart of Misangyu to send off the form as he was cited in last week's report by the FTC among a list of three bloggers who failed to disclose to readers that they received payments in marketing schemes. The FTC noted that the bloggers were not fined because the amount of payment they received was too small. Indeed, the payment for one of the cited bloggers, Park Hyo-sun (Where she stayed a while), was only 26,000 won ($22).
In response to the FTC citation, Misangyu explained in his blog that the "sommelier" project was obviously a marketing project, but he apologized that he broke the law as stated and vowed to be more transparent.
Misangyu also believed that it was time for some bloggers to recognize the legal and ethical dangers of group-buying marketing.
"Maybe it's good for the long-term that this blew up now. For some time now, I've noticed that some blogs were becoming too commercial, working with marketing companies. We need to develop clear ethical guidelines on disclosure and we also need to become aware of legal and tax issues," concluded Misangyu.
But it seems that recent guidelines on disclosure set by the FTC aren't as clear as bloggers would like them to be, as shown by an incident involving the FTC's own team of bloggers.
IT blogger "Chitsol"
Popular IT blogger Chitsol noticed a webtoon "The Inconvenient Truth About Power Bloggers" (http://KFTC.tistory.com/2995) by a professional blogger in the FTC team blog site.
He promptly asked the FTC blog administrator to disclose that the bloggers were paid for their posts. The blog administrator replied that they have no duty to disclose because the posts were not "advertising" a product but rather were mere "contributions" to the blog.
"Essentially, they're arguing that it's not advertising if the paid content is for the government. But that isn't right, they should make it clear that they're paying for their advertising," argued Chitsol.
It's a case of the "pot calling the kettle black," says blogger HyoriSarang who brought up a study by the People's Coalition for Media Reform that revealed how some Korean newspapers were paid to write articles praising government policies.
"It's hypocritical of the Korean media to focus their attack on bloggers, when they've taken money from the government themselves," argued HyoriSarang.
The root of the problem, some argue, is the all-too-cozy relationship between media outlets and advertisers.
"All too often we see an advertisement for say a real estate company in the sidebar of a newspaper right next to an article on the real estate market that amounts to nothing more than a press release from that very same real estate company," Myung points out.
"Bloggers have criticized this pay-for-content system in legacy media for years, but they've failed to develop their own alternative media system," says Myung. That's in part, Myung adds, because bloggers have little legal protection as a media outlet and have been coddled within giant portal systems such as Naver and Daum.
Perhaps the BabyRose incident was necessary growing pains for Korea's blogging community. Nonetheless, Myung is afraid that the wave of government reprisals may have pressured many bloggers to give up.
But this incident has also toughened up some bloggers.
"The system has been festering for a while now," says Misangyu. "It's time for me to sharpen my kitchen knife and make my own way. I have to focus on how to become a better blogger."