Singapore's online licensing rule a sign of more to come

Singapore's supposed "light touch" approach to regulating the Internet has escalated into a new licensing regime, triggering a slew of questions from the public that the government must be prepared to answer.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

News that the Singapore government was introducing a new licensing rule for online news sites broke late Tuesday evening, thus, signaling the start of a new media regime which took many in the industry by surprise and sent the online community reeling in anger.

Singapore's new licensing regime may mark the start of more changes to come.

Starting June 2013, online news sites reporting on local "news and current affairs" will need individual licenses to do so if they meet two main criteria as outlined by content regulator, Media Development Authority (MDA). Sites that report at least one article a week on news related to Singapore over a period of two months, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months, will require the individual licenses.

In addition, they will need to put out a performance bond of S$50,000 to acquire the license, and licensees will be required to remove "prohibited content" within 24 hours of being notified to do so.

What is deemed "prohibited" is outlined in the existing Internet Code of Practice which lists content that's objectionable on the grounds of "public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws". According to the Code, consideration is given to whether the content contains, for instance, "nudity or genitalia in a manner calculated to titillate", or if it "promotes sexual violence", or "depicts a person or persons clearly engaged in explicit sexual activity"...

They lost me at "prohibited"...

So many unanswered questions

The latest announcement has triggered a slew of questions from the industry as well as general public that have yet to be clearly addressed by the government.

What exactly constitutes as "Singapore news and current affairs" and hence, would require an individual license? MDA defines such content as any "news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, or scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language--whether paid or free".

Just taking that as it is, especially with its all-encompassing "or any other aspect of Singapore", it seems any piece of content mentioning Singapore can be considered "news and current affairs". An article about the discovery of a new specie of rodent in the country can be considered "social" or "scientific" report of "public interest", couldn't it?

Which begs the question, why were sites like CNN, BBC, Reuters, or Bloomberg left out of its list of 10 sites MDA said would require an individual license, especially since sg.news.yahoo.com made the cut?

And would Facebook be considered? Sure, the site is primarily a social media platform, but what if someone in Singapore writes and posts a weekly news article on his Facebook page and it's shared each time across his friends, and his friends' friends. What then? And how will MDA track the number unique IP addresses from Singapore that accessed these articles?

And what if Malaysia, Thailand, and China are mentioned in the report alongside Singapore. Would the article be considered as 0.25 news related to Singapore and not consitute as 1 article per week?

Also, would the licensing rule apply to sites hosted from servers located out of Singapore? What if Webpages from sg.news.yahoo.com were actually hosted from a server that's located in Yahoo's global headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. Would it then still make the list of 10 sites?

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim had said the new licensing rule would apply only to local-based Web sites but little was said about what consititues as "local-based". Is the government referring to the location of the server? Or is it referring to the local operations of the site operator?

Why was MDA in September 2012 then able to "direct Google to restrict access" to a video it said contained material deemed capable of inciting "religious hatred, strife, or intolerance" in Singapore?

Will smaller alternative news sites, with the "reach" and "content" to meet the two licensing criteria, be allowed to seek public fund and donation to raise the $50,000 bond?

And what if sites fail to comply with the government's 24-hour take-down directive. Will ISPs be instructed to block the site? What if Singaporeans use VPN to circumvent the filters and gain access to recalcitrant sites? Will MDA then cut power supply to their servers?

What about cached copies and screen grabs? Will the site be required to trace all of these and held liable for them too? Anyone who understands how the Internet operates would know it's impossible to remove every single copy once an article has been posted.

[UPDATE: MDA posted a notice on the Government Gazette, detailing the amendments to the Broadcasting Act, Chapter 28. It noted that content carried by sub-domains of a Web site would be considered as part of the original site. These would include mirrored sites, where content might be "duplicated on or transferred to one or more other Web sites in or from Singapore".

There's no mention of how this will be enforced, or whether sites are expected to ensure the removal of all "duplicated" copies if they do not operate or own these "mirrored" sites.]

And with the increasing adoption of cloud services, a piece of content originating from Singapore can be hosted anywhere in the world. Even the author or news site operator may not always know the exact location of the servers since some cloud service providers keep the location of their data centers confidential. Is the news site then expected to hunt down the exact location of the server from which its content is hosted, just to determine if it falls under Singapore's jurisdiction?

What if the site replaces the "offending" article with a notification detailing MDA's take-down instruction, makes the entire article available on a third-party site like WordPress, Facebook, Reuters, or New York Times, and then redirects its readers to the third-party site to ensure the content can still be accessed. Will the Singapore government send take-down notices to these established international sites and expect them to obey?

So many questions, so few answers, and information provided so far have been so vague.

The maddening reason

Amid the industry backlash and public outcry is the big question: why this, and why now?

The government would have us believe the latest move brings "no change in content standards" since online sites are already subject to similar requirements under existing rules, specifically, the Internet Code of Practice and the Class Licence. So it's business as usual, they mean to say, and the latest ruling is simply "MDA's efforts to periodically review all policies to ensure they are in line with industry and consumer developments".


Opposition political party, National Solidarity Party (NSP), issued a statement to express its "deep concern" over the announcement which it said was "puzzling" in an era when the government should be promoting more open and frank discussion about national issues. The opposition took issue with the 24-hour takedown rule on content deemed objectionable, and $50,000 bond which it said could prove a barrier for independent news outlets. It added that global news organizations would be discouraged from reporting Singapore news to avoid meeting the criteria for the license.

"The NSP believes the spirit and conditions of the new regulation will have a regressive effect on the development of the local media industry and quality of journalism at large in our country," it said. "While the government has made much of its intention to be more open and engaged with the citizenry, by this latest move, we cannot help but be left with the feeling it has merely been paying lip service to the notion of a national conversation."

The licensing rule suggests the Singapore government has taken a major detour from its previous pledge to adopt a "light-touch" approach to Internet regulation. In its own words, MDA said on its Web site: "In regulating the Internet, MDA adopts a balanced and light-touch approach to ensure that minimum standards are set for the responsible use of the Internet, while offering maximum flexibility for industry players to operate. MDA also encourages industry self-regulation and public education efforts to complement its co-regulatory approach."

I guess it needs to update its site.

And there are already signs more regulation is underway. Speaking to local reporters following the announcement of the new licensing rule, Yaacob revealed the Broadcasting Act will be further amended next year to include overseas-based news sites targeting the Singapore market. This will enable the government to apply the licensing framework on these sites, he said.

Looking back, we should have seen the signs coming. In 2009, then-Acting Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew had described the Internet as an ineffective self-regulated environment. And in 2011, during his opening address at the 7th Ministerial Forum on ICT, Yaacob said governments worldwide were starting to recognize the online community as an important group which they need to reach out to. He said this was changing the way governments interacted with their citizens.

Will MNCs want to operate in a country where the law is so loosely defined the ruling party may very well choose to classify business blogs as "news sites"?

I'm guessing the new licensing regime is how the Singapore ruling party has chosen to interact.

What else is brewing

I'd like to believe perhaps my government does mean well, that it really is business as usual, and the new licensing rule is simply an extension to "give some form of parity" between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.

And perhaps it really isn't about clamping down on Internet freedom and merely to show the cane is on the table, and will be used only to ensure religious, racial, and social harmony in Singapore. Even then, with the cane now in plain view, no doubt some news sites will tread more carefully and choose self-censorship to avoid crossing the line--wherever that line is.

Either way, this does not bode well for Singapore's international standing and reputation as a free-market economy. Will MNCs want to operate in a country where the law is so loosely defined the ruling party may very well choose to classify business blogs as "news sites"?

How else will the government be "interacting" with the industry and population? Yaacob has already revealed foreign news sites reporting on Singapore will be held by the same licensing framework when the Broadcasting Act is further amended next year. What next? Social media regulation?

I'll be waiting to see if, and when, it will use the new licensing rule to rein in errant sites, and how it plans to penalize them. I'm keen to find out why the government thinks it's capable of regulating the Internet--when many in China have been able to circumvent the local firewall and access the country's own list of "prohibited" sites.

Meanwhile, news sites reporting on Singapore might want to relook their strategy and not rejoice when they cross 50,000 in monthly visitors because they may end up $50,000 poorer.

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