Can Singapore.com be regulated on trust?

Singapore government asks public to trust its track record of not using regulation as a form of online censorship, but shouldn't it also trust news sites to behave responsibly instead of introducing more rules?
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

It took a while, over a month actually, but foreign governments and market players are finally speaking out against Singapore's online licensing rule which came into effect last month. 

"Furore" over MDA's announcement should serve as great feedback for the government as it looks to further amend the Broadcasting Act.

In my previous blogpost, I stressed the negative impact the new regulation would have on the city-state's global standing and questioned whether multinational corporations would still want to operate here, given the lack of clarity about the ruling. 

True to form, five U.S.-based Internet giants including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo penned a letter which was sent to Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim and highlighted their concerns the new licensing framework could "unintentionally hamper Singapore's ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries...and attract investment in [the technology] sector".

"We believe the scope of the regulation and manner in which it was introduced have negatively impacted Singapore's global image as an open and business-friendly country," they noted. 

On Monday, during its daily media briefing in Washington, the U.S. government echoed its concerns about the new licensing policy which it described as "restrictive". US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said: "We urge Singapore to ensure freedom of expression is protected in accordance with its international obligations and commitments."

She added that the U.S. is concerned to see the Asian nation applying press restrictions to the online world.

Ok, so the U.S. ain't exactly the poster child these days for safeguarding our rights to privacy, but come on, is anyone really surprised there's bilateral spying going on across the globe?

In his latest response, Yaacob said in parliament on Monday the license requirement places a "stronger onus" on websites to be aware of their legal obligations and to report responsibly.

He added that news is important because it helps the public make informed decisions, and if the reporting of which is not done responsibly, it could have "disastrous effects". So, news sites need to be held on a "slightly higher standards and responsibility", he said, and reiterated the need to for online reporting to be held to the same standards as traditional media. 

Yaacob noted: "This is not a major change, it is a tweaking of the class licensing scheme. If the Internet community doesn't understand, I will be very worried."

Is it time to ring the alarm bell?

With the latest statements from the U.S. government and Web companies, I think it's pretty clear the Singapore online community aren't the only folks noting the significance of this "minor tweak". But it's a point my government has been persisting with since it introduced the licensing rule. 

Aubeck Kam (extreme-left) says MDA's track record in the past ought to speak for itself.

I attended a dialogue session last week which featured Aubeck Kam, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Communications and Information, who was also the CEO of MDA up until last November when he took up his current position at the ministry. MDA, or Media Development Authority, is Singapore's content regulator. 

Organized by the Singapore Computer Society and Internet Society (Singapore chapter), the event was attended by local media, bloggers, and academics, including the folks behind FreeMyInternet.com and the group representing the  five U.S. Internet giants. It wasn't exactly a a friendly environment, so kudos to Kam for agreeing to show up and answer questions. 

A couple of things stood out during the session. He made clear all news organizations had a unique responsibility, and that regulations were necessary to keep things in check. 

"Entities that put themselves forward as news providers actually enjoy a special position, and with that special position, they also have special responsibility," Kam said. "Even in other countries, even in the West, they're finding out that choosing not to regulate the media and believing they can self-regulate, has actually not worked very well."

He cited how the United Kingdom, for example, has had to "repair the damage" caused by media organizations that  invaded the privacy of citizens in the name of reporting the news. He noted it was clear the model of self-regulation had not served them very well. 

Singapore, he added, wasn't unique in its attempts at trying to find the right balance with media regulation.

He then reiterated, but strayed from a term MDA had initially used to explain why the new licensing framework was necessary. "We need a more consistent regulatory framework," he said, noting he had chosen not to repeat the word "parity"--which MDA had used in its initial statement--because the Singapore government recognized it could not extend regulation identically across different domains due to their different nature and characteristic.

"The changes we're talking about are very minimum and only necessary because it flows from the fact, and recognition, that significant news sites have very special position as well as special responsibility," Kam said. "I struggle to see what is the new thing descended upon that affects how the Internet operate. Truth of the matter is, Internet sites have always been subject to regulation."

The issue of trust

On the "furore" that followed the announcement, Kam called for everyone to "examine the facts calmly". "Hardly anything has changed," he said, noting that MDA has not revoked any existing licenses, changed any existing rules for licensees, or banned any site since implementing the new framework. 

Neither has the regulator ever ordered the removal of content that's critical of the government and its policies, he added. Content standards remain the same, he said.

"There's no need to read signals or interpretation because we're directly communicating and saying exactly what we think," he noted, referring to suggestions the Singapore government might have a hidden agenda by introducing the new rule. "MDA's track record in the past ought to speak for itself."

In other words, trust the Singapore government not to use the new regulation as a way to quash its critics and stifle Internet freedom. 

But, why doesn't it then trust news sites to behave responsibly instead of introducing more regulations? Established news sites have their own code of practice and want to maintain accurate reporting, or risk losing their reputation and credibility among their readers. It would not be in their company's own interest to be irresponsible. 

When I asked why the government couldn't afford the same trust to news sites, Kam stopped me midway and pointed out that ZDNet shouldn't be too concerned since we were a global site and wouldn't meet MDA's criteria of local news reach and frequency to require a license. 

But, that's precisely my point.

News sites like ZDNet don't need government regulations to instruct them to behave "responsibly" since they are in a "special position", to use Kam's words. Regardless of the fact MDA regards ZDNet as not license-worthy, we don't see this as an opportunity to be any less responsible in our reporting. And I'm sure that holds true for most established news organizations that are serious about their business and recognize they have a reputation and credibility to protect. 

That further puts into question why MDA's new licensing framework is even necessary at all. 

Kuek Yu-Chuang, Singapore-based Internet policy analyst, who was at the same dialogue session, noted that any update in regulation should move toward the reality in which society currently operates. While there's no easy answer on what the right regulation or policy should be, he questioned MDA's rationale behind the new licensing rule, and urged the need to put due diligence and consideration before rolling out new regulations. 

"It's the [news organizations] that have international reach that end up setting the benchmark either through user guidelines or terms of service, and maybe that's the way we should be looking at this issue," Kuek said, on Kam's point that countries had to adopt different policies due to cultural differences.  

Moving forward...

Perhaps Kam is right, and that the Singapore government's primary objective here is to level the regulatory environment between both traditional and new media platforms, and create a more "consistent" framework.

Perhaps that's really all there is to it. No conspiracy theory about how this comes as the lead up to the country's 2016 general elections, providing more avenues to clamp down on political dissent. No hidden agenda to stifle freedom of expression. 

No need to read other signals or interpretation because the government is directly communicating and saying exactly what it is thinking, as Kam puts it. 

If that's the case, then perhaps it's time to move on and let the government's action speak for itself. Should it choose to exercise the licensing rule in the near future, it now knows the whole world--not just Singapore's online community--will be watching closely. 

If there's one thing the Singapore government cares about, aside from introducing online regulations, it is creating an environment that is business-friendly and that encourages MNCs to set up their regional headquarters. It will unlikely want to make any hasty move that will jeopardize the country's status as a global business hub. 

At the very least, the "furore" over MDA's announcement would serve as great feedback for the government as it looks to further amend the Broadcasting Act next year.  And hopefully, it would encourage the relevant officials to remember their pledge to adopt a "light touch" and invest due diligence into evaluating the right policies to implement. 

During last week's dialogue, Kam had expressed doubt that society will attain a stage where "we're all enlightened and don't need the benefit of regulation". Noting that there's still road traffic legislation today, he explained: "There are laws but there are also efforts to educate the public. I think they will always co-exist because you cannot expect legislation is the solution, but it's [also] idealistic to say education is always the solution."

I can't agree with his traffic road analogy to validate the need for more online regulations. Yes, basic rules and legislation will always be necessary to guide society. That's where laws like defamation, libel, security, and privacy come in. These already exist to enable governments and citizens alike to take action against errant news sites and defamatory content. 

As Kam said, even without the new licensing rule, content standards remain the same and there have always been media regulations. 

If the basic legislation framework has always been there, then why introduce a new one? It'll be like requiring pedestrains to pass a road safety test every year, wouldn't it? 

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