S'pore outlines new licensing rule for online news sites

[UPDATE] Content regulator Media Development Authority says news sites with significant reader reach and report regularly on Singapore will now need individual licenses. Local lawyer, though, urges further clarification.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

[UPDATE] SINGAPORE--Online news sites reporting on local issues will now need an individual license from content regulator, Media Development Authority (MDA), as the Singapore government seeks more consistency with traditional news platforms.

Sites reporting on Singapore news will require individual licenses if they meet the stipulated criteria.

In a statement released today, MDA said the new requirement will take effect June 1, 2013, for news sites with significant reach among readers and that report regularly on Singapore. The move is aimed at putting these platforms on par with traditional news agencies which already are individually licensed, and creating a more consistent regulatory framework, the regulator said. 

Speaking to local reporters Tuesday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said: "Given the evolving landscape, it's important to give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters."

News sites currently are automatically licensed under the Broadcasting Act. With the new ruling, the sites will require individual licenses if they 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.

The government defines news as content carrying 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".

MDA said the new licensing rule provides "greater clarity" on existing requirements within the country's Class License and Internet Code of Practice, which are overarching guidelines all media operators in the country have to observe.

Under the Internet Code of Practice, for instance, content undermining racial and religious cohesiveness in Singapore are classified as "prohibited content", the regulator said, noting that these would continue to apply to online sites under the new ruling.

Licensed online news sites, though, now must comply within 24 hours when instructed by MDA to remove content deemed to have breached the stipulated content guidelines. The new licensing rule also requires online news sites to put forward a performance bond of S$50,000 (US$39,631), it said.

MDA will issue formal notification to sites that meet the criteria for individual licensing and work with them to move to the new framework. It published a list of 10 sites which will receive this notification when the ruling comes into effect. The regulator added it had used various datasets and market surveys to evaluate and determine if these sites met the licensing criteria. The 10 sites are:

  • asiaone.com
  • businesstimes.com.sg
  • channelnewsasia.com
  • omy.sg
  • sg.news.yahoo.com
  • stomp.com.sg
  • straitstimes.com
  • tnp.sg
  • todayonline.com
  • zaobao.com 

The licenses are valid for a year and sites will be reassessed to determine if they still meet the criteria, for instance, of clocking 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore, before licenses are renewed.

Asked when and how new sites will be added to the list, MDA said it will continue to assess sites which meet the criteria and issue formal notification for them to move to the licensing framework. The regulator added that it does not actively police sites and usually assesses content when it receives complaints from the public.

As of now, no other online news sites beyond the 10 listed are found to have met the qualifying criteria of reach and content. Also, the license is specific to sites under Singapore's jurisdiction, specifically, local-based Web sites which meet the two qualifying criteria.

According to Yaacob, the Broadcasting Act will be further amended next year to include overseas-based news sites targeting the Singapore market, giving the government power to apply the licensing framework on these sites. 

"They are reporting on Singapore and I think if you report on Singapore, we want to make sure you report fairly and accurately and, so far, there have been no problems," he added. 

In its statement, MDA stressed the new ruling would not introduce major changes to the current regime since all news operators were already governed by existing guidelines. "As the sites are already subject to these requirements [outlined by the Class License and Internet Code of Practice], no change in content standards is expected to result," it said. "These updates in the licensing framework are part of MDA's efforts to periodically review all policies to ensure they are in line with industry and consumer developments."

It shows governments now want a tighter rein on the Internet, and indicates the growth of online media is steady and certain.

- Bryan Tan, lawyer

The new ruling will be added as amendments to the Broadcasting Act, which will be gazetted tomorrow and effected on June 1, 2013.

New ruling too broad stroke

However, a Singapore-based lawyer specializing in technology called for more clarity in the new ruling which currently is described rather broadly. 

Bryan Tan, a partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay and also a ZDNet Asia blogger, said the new ruling introduces two components from a process point of view. First, news sites have 24 hours to remove content MDA deems to have violated the stipulated content standards. Previously, no timeline was specified in the Class License or Internet Code of Practice, Tan said.

Second, news sites will need to put up a S$50,000 performance bond. He noted this could impact alternative news sites such as The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus, and The Real Singapore, which will need to be individually licensed if they meet the criteria. If so, certain information must be provided such as the names of the editors operating the sites. This could be a stumbling block for site owners who may not want to be identified, he said.

In addition, some of these sites may not be willing to fork out the S$50,000 bond, Tan said. For instance, if the content producers come together informally to operate the site, they may not want to subject their bond for someone else's liability, he explained. 

He also called for more clarity on the definition of what is classified "Singapore news and current affairs". For instance, would a site covering news about computers sold in Singapore or someone writing about legal developments or investments in the country fall under the current definition. 

He pointed to other loopholes. "For example, if someone doesn't operate a site but has a Facebook page on which he posts news and this is shared via other Facebook users. How will the number of readers be determined and who exactly is liable in this instance, is it Facebook or the original writer?

While the government had iterated the licensing rule would cover only local-based Web sites, questions remain over what exactly this entails. For instance, would news sites with ".sg" domain names but hosted on a server located outside Singapore be considered "local"? 

The Broadcasting Act currently also includes a section detailing "foreign broadcasting services", defined as a service that "transmits from a place outside Singapore, broadcasting services which are capable of being received in Singapore". It is unclear how this would apply to the new licensing clause when it is gazetted and added to the Act. 

Tan noted: "And the wider question is, is this leading to something else that the government is planning?" He pointed to how governments globally such as TaiwanVietnam and India, recently have been stepping in to increase online censorship.

"It shows governments now want a tighter rein on the Internet, and indicates the growth of online media is steady and certain. People are going to the Web as an alternative source of information, so it's no longer a novelty and moving into mainstream," he said.

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