Sunday, June 11, 2006

Interview: Internet Regulations on Political Content


It's been ten years since we've had Internet regulations in Singapore, starting with the Class Licence Scheme in 1996 and the Code of Internet Practice in 1997. How do you see regulations as having evolved? The Government talked about regulating with a "light touch" back then -- and now. How has this worked in practice? Have there been any cases where regulations have been enforced?

Firstly, there are other experts in Singapore - Associate Professor Ang Peng Hwa, Assistant Professor Cherian George and Assistant Professor Burton Ong - who can more competently look at the regulations. Please ask them; I have copied this e-mail to them.

When I started contributing to the Internet in 1999, I lived in England and the legislation only applies to an individual in Singapore. Since returning to Singapore, I have also not been too concerned about it. One of my occupational hazards just happens to be a law-abiding mentality, so I have a natural tendency to comply with the law. Hence, for me, the "light touch" has literally been no touch!

Moreover, there are other more important legislation and things to be more concerned about in Singapore. The Internet legislation is a reflection of the mentality inherent in some of our media policies and guidelines to unnecessarily escalate a climate of fear. It emphasises what already exists in other aspects of your statutory law, and which could simply have been extended by way of common law. It is something we did not need in the first place. But it was at that time a knee-jerk response to some Singaporeans' desire to have the internet regulated - for example, parents wishing to protect the interests of their children.

I was only directly affected by the legislation in my work as corporate counsel. Slightly more than a year ago, my employer wanted to set up an internet newspaper and we were concerned about whether there is a need to register the newspaper. I sent in an application and I found out you don't have to register, unless you're invited to do so. I guess that's how the "light touch" works in practice.

For Internet users/practitioners, what have the evolving regulations meant? How have they (had to) adjust(ed)? (There seems to have been talk over the years of the lack of clarity of and vagueness in Government Net regulations -- how has this had an effect on Net users?)

The regulations have had no effect on me as an Internet user, although there is anecdotal evidence on blogs to suggest that some are concerned about the vague regulations.

Can you tell us a bit about the current Sintercom and how it works, what it has been like navigating the regulations?

Please ask the New Sintercom editor, who I have copied this e-mail to. I do not own or manage New Sintercom; I am only a contributor.

How do you see the role of the Internet here vis-a-vis traditional media? How have local regulations shaped that role?

Internet or alternative media supplement what you read or see in the mainstream media. In some cases, they bring you information from primary sources, like recordings of election rallies and reactions of our leaders to their election victiories. In other cases, they provide for views that are not usually heard in the mainstream media. In the ideas marketplace of alternative media, no one idea is more superior than others; every idea deserves and gets a fair hearing. Often times, the alternative media seek to balance what one finds or does not find in our mainstream media. Alternative media place the onus on the individual to accept or reject the idea or view proposed.

Most Internet media about Singapore operate independently and anonymously. Additionally, if one tries to register those not anonymous, one will probably have a compliance enforcement nightmare! These circumstances have made it very difficult for the government to regulate such media. The issue then is not to regulate these media but to respond to them, and the solution lies in having mainstream media feature a plurality of perspectives.

Unfortunately, the irony here is that local guidelines on how mainstream media should report news or views have made it very difficult for mainstream media to respond to the challenge posed by alternative media.

What did you think of the role of the Net/Netizens in the recent GE?

There are other experts in Singapore - Tan Tarn How, Alex Au, Seah Chiang Nee - who can more competently look at this issue. Please ask them; I have copied this e-mail to them.

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that the manner in which alternative media covered the General Election had some influence on how mainstream media covered information. For example, some media have had an open policy of supporting the party they believe to be the best choice for Singapore's voters. I noticed a shift in that policy, with more balanced reporting.

Two key facts support this shift. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said at separate events that Singapore's journalists have strongly rooted for the opposition in this General Election. And lo and behold, even the opposition said the same about the mainstream media coverage of the dominant party. Thus, I think our mainstrem media coverage is somewhere in the middle now.

Of course, the other factor why we had balanced reporting has to do with the dynamics within our media companies. In recent years, I am meeting more young, well-trained and critical journalists. They are willing to ask tough questions and they are willing to take up a good fight, even if it means in the process they find themselves in a cul-de-sac and wounded. From where I sit, I see a clear divide within newer and older ranks of the media, especially on what and how news or views should be covered. I believe there is a heightened sense of fairness and justice within our media companies now, and a thirst to feature a plurality of perspectives.

In a 31 May 06 speech, Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Lee Boon Yang said that regulations may evolve further and by the next General Election, the Government "may be able to adopt a lighter-touch approach during the election period". What do you think of this? What will this mean for Net users? Can and how might this "lighter-touch approach" work in practice?

Lee Boon Yang was merely emphasising - for the benefit of less-informed Singaporeans - what is already found in our legislation. As for his comments on an evolving legislation, it is part of the natural progression of any law and I think Singaporeans, who understand how the law works, will appreciate why this happens.

It is hard to say how this law will evolve, since there has been no public consultation on this issue, and the Ministry of Information, Communication & the Arts has been focused on not engaging others on this issue. I wrote to Dr Tan Chin Nam, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information, Communication & the Arts, about this on 5 April 2006. He did not reply. I wrote to him again on 8 May 2006. His team replied on 9 May 2006. They have thanked me for my "views and have taken note of them". I think this is good progress. From not replying to my suggestions, his team noted them. My letter dated 8 May 2006 and their reply dated 9 May 2006 is on the New Sintercom website.

How do the regulations keep up (or not) with changes in technology?

It is very difficult to deal with questions on expectations of statutory law. Some people feel the statutory law can be more dynamic, others feel the statutory law should respond less reactively to changing whims and fancies of society. There is value in the latter since you don't want to be allowing - for example - pornography in Singapore one day and banning it the next day.

Our common law heritage has many examples of statutory law not always being able to keep up with changing norms. It is because of this we have judges and lawyers, who help the law keep up (or not) with changes. Of course, we need to provide some flexibility in our legislation for our legal profession and judiciary to exercise such discretion.

Saying that regulations should keep up with changes may place an onerous burden on our legislation writers. It is akin to saying that our legislators have all the solutions to our problems and can predict the future, when most of us recognise this is really not the case.

Nevertheless, it is important for a policy maker to keep abreast of changing norms in society. My hope in this regard is that the many advisory committees of the Ministry of Information, Communication & the Arts or the Media Development Authority will become more accessible, and meet the public more regularly. Let people engage these advisory committees and from such regular and direct contact, specific areas for legislative reform will naturally follow.

What are your views on regulating the Internet (at all)? Why?

Our media regulators should realise that the more they control online discourse, the more people will go anonymous. Dr Balaji Sadasivan has said, "In a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debates could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumours and distortions to mislead and confuse the public."

My experience has been the opposite. Take the case of Sintercom. Before our media regulators engaged its owners, Sintercom's forum had a vibrant community. There was good debate, and it was a crucible of wonderful ideas and suggestions. There is currently no lack of "unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumours and distortions" on the Internet. I don't think the public has been misled and confused. With more access to information, a person can better differentiate between waste and useful material. The Internet has helped me understand television and newspapers better. I can now verify the information I read or see on mainstream media quickly. Others now tell me they are doing the same. And I think this has paved the way for more accountable journalism in Singapore.

How does the regulatory regime here compare with that of other countries?

I have no competency to answer this. I have copied this e-mail to more competent persons in Singapore - Bryan Tan of Keystone Law Corporation and Assistant Professor Burton Ong. Please ask them.

Dharmendra Yadav

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