The ‘blogging community’ is up in arms over MDA’s new licensing framework for online news sites. I use air quotes to describe this community as they are more often than not squabbling with each other over copyright infringements and popularity battles. Perhaps ‘the blogging extended family’ is more appropriate. Every large family has a couple of recalcitrant troublemakers that you try hard to disassociate from, but are unable to avoid come CNY and other major gatherings.
With only ten sites listed under this new scheme, nine of which are part of the mainstream media, you might be mistaken into believing that independent bloggers and netters are suddenly throwing their support behind a group collectively, and colourfully, dubbed ‘the 154th media’.
For the context of this battle between bloggers and government regulating authorities, you will need to look back about five years for the last major discussion on Internet Freedom.
How many of us remember Aims?
No, not Action Information Management Systems (AIM), but the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (Aims). Aims was set up in 2007 to advise the Government how social, ethical, legal and regulatory impact of new media should be managed in line with the growth of the media.
Protecting Content Providers from Defamation Lawsuits
A key recommendation that was raised and accepted by Government was that online intermediaries to be given some protection from defamation lawsuits.
This sought to achieve the dual objectives of stopping lawsuits against content hosts who had not put up the allegedly defamatory material, and overzealous censorship by content companies worried about such prosecution. Back then, nominated MP and general counsel of Yahoo! Southeast Asia it is “generally a good thing forall parties involved to have their rights and obligations clearlyspelt out”.
Where are we now?
Things have changed, but not entirely as expected. It seems that in order to protect the content provider from defamatory lawsuits, a simplified 24-hr take down notice, tied to a $50,000 performance bond and other fines, have been introduced.
Perhaps looking back at his past participation in the debate over Aims, Siew Kum Hong, now a former NMP and former corporate Lawyer for Yahoo! Southeast Asia, contends that “the Singapore government has been looking for a way to give itself the power to censor the internet, in the same way that it has the power to censor offline media.”
He also goes as far to suggest that “this regulatory action is aimeddirectly at Yahoo!, with the goal of ensuring that the government hasdirect or indirect control or influence over all major online newsoutlets in Singapore.”
But he is not the only one singling out Yahoo! Singapore as the MDA’s prime target.
"Itcertainly looks like there's political motivation behind this newlicensing framework, and the motivation seems to be to rein in Yahoo!Singapore," wrote NSP’s Ravi Philemon and former editor of The Online Citizen.
“Of course, many of us are aware of the often critical views expressed on Yahoo. (In particular, posts by Andrew Loh on YahooNews could be quite irksome to the powers that be.)”, wrote legal blogger Subra of article14.blogspot.com.
Moving beyond Yahoo! Singapore, many netters have joined in the chorus of seeking assurances that these new rules will cover only commercially-operated sites and not individual bloggers. Many attempts have already been made to allay these fears. The latest on this respect is found here: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-regime-will-not-limit-public-discourse-yaacob
But as Andrew loh of PublicHouse and weekly contributor to Yahoo Singapore says “Some of us bloggers have stood up and are standing against the new regulations because we know that contrary to what the government has said so far, the new licensing regime is and will be used to snuff out alternative viewpoints and information which the State disapprove of.”
Several sociopolitical websites and bloggers will hold a protest both online and offline this week against the new licensing scheme that came into effect yesterday.
The group of netizens - which calls itself Free My Internet - circulated a statement online yesterday calling for people to join them at a rally at Speakers' Corner this Saturday, as well as for netizens to shut down their blogs and websites for 24 hours this Thursday.
The statement had 34 signatories, including the editors of sites such as The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus and Public House; prominent bloggers and Mr Gilbert Goh, the man who organised the recent protests at Hong Lim Park against the White Paper on Population.
The way that the regulations are crafted will easily extend to cover websites and blogs during elections.
“It is puzzling that at a time when it should be promoting more open and frank discussion about national issues, the Government has instead seen fit to increase regulation on a media landscape that is already tightly controlled,” said the NSP’s Secretary-General Hazel Poa in the statement.
“This latest move from the Government has raised many questions and concerns. When Parliament next sits, you can expect WP MPs to be asking the Minister for Information and Communications many of these questions, and pressing him for a response.”
If one wishes to be pedantic, you could easily dismiss the above as overreactions as a result of misinterpretations. After all, the new rules do not apply to socio-political blogs and political websites. So why are these disparate groups kicking about a fuss over a legislation that in essence does not concern them?
Furthermore, the internet is too large to be limited to mainstream media portals and this handful of bloggers and politicians. For example, there are many internet forums that house a whole array of unfettered discourse. The beast that is the WWW cannot be regulated. It can however be self-regulated, to an extent.
I cannot speak for everyone so I will just end with my own interpretation. In a nutshell, the anger is as much in reaction to how the rules emerged, as to the nitty gritty of the rules themselves.
With all the recent talk about the Our Singapore Conversation, a public consultation would have probably made this issue more palatable. We have had recent public consultations for tax code reforms, tobacco control, personal data protection bills, lemon law …etc, so this is not some radical idea. How about a parliamentary debate and vote? Some might call it a wayang exercise but it forces the crafters of such legislation to defend their position and not hide behind other ministers.