Monday, November 13, 2006

Singapore Combats Blogs With Light Touch


As some countries like China and India take drastic measures to ban controversial blogs or Internet websites, Singapore is taking quite a different tact.

In 1995, academic Ang Peng Hwa remarked in his paper, 'Censorship and the Internet: A Singapore Perspective': "Singapore's case is instructive in that it is trying to both control information and yet benefit from the information age. Current thinking suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve both aims. Nevertheless, Singapore is trying."

This position was emphasised by current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong most recently in his National Day Message to mark Singapore's 41 years of independence.

He remarked, "The internet is a tremendous tool which is changing the world. We should make full use of it to link up with the world, engage one another, and be a productive economy and vibrant society. But the internet creates new problems too. Not everything on the internet is reliable; it is not easy to tell apart fact from fiction in cyberspace; and instant communications can cause people to over-react hastily and unthinkingly to events. Therefore we must learn how to live with this new medium, and adapt to it. This is a challenge to many societies, not just Singapore."

As a result, Singapore has adopted various measures to deal with two key groups of stakeholders, that is the internet service providers and the publishers of internet content.

An automatic licensing framework has been implemented for both internet service providers and content providers. Individuals who provide personal web pages, including blogs, are exempted from this licensing scheme.

Internet service providers are required to register with the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA). No registration is required for internet content providers, unless the provider is "invited" to do so.

The MDA requires Internet Service Providers to observe the following guidelines: "ISPs are required to limit access to some high-impact websites, as identified by MDA. ISPs are encouraged to take their own initiative against offensive content through their own Acceptable Use Policies. They are not required to monitor the Internet or their users' Internet activities."

A think-tank considered the effectiveness of these guidelines in a recent study, 'Internet Filtering in Singapore in 2004-2005'.

The study concluded, "Singapore's state-mandated filtering of Internet sites is quite limited. Our testing found only six pornographic sites, one illegal drugs site, and one fanatical religion site blocked, and each of these sites could be reached in at least some of our tests. Only six sites were blocked in more than one-third of our tests, including five pornographic sites. We believe that these six sites are those most likely targeted for deliberate blocking by Singapore. Moreover, similar content is readily available at other, unblocked sites. Thus, the state's technological Internet censorship is minimal, reflecting the MDA's professed symbolic commitment to preventing access to this type of material."

It is also significant that the study observed, "Singapore uses other, non-technological measures to prevent online posting of and access to certain material, particularly that related to political groups other than the People's Action Party and to religious and ethnic conflict. The threats of extremely high fines or even criminal prosecution as a result of defamation lawsuits, imprisonment without judicial approval under the Internal Security Act, and police monitoring of computer use may deter users in Singapore from creating or obtaining access to potentially objectionable material. Thus, Singapore's filtering regime for political, religious, and ethnic material is primarily low-tech, yet nonetheless potentially effective."

In particular, the organs of state in Singapore have adopted a zero tolerance policy of negative material on ethnic and religious content. At least two individuals were charged and convicted in 2005.

Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 27, was jailed for a month. Nicholas Lim, 25, was imprisoned for one day and fined the maximum S$5000 for racist remarks against the Malay community. In another case this year, police investigated an individual for publishing offensive cartoons of Jesus Christ. No charges were brought against this individual but he was given a stern warning.

The Singapore government has been especially concerned about the impact blogs may have on the democratic process in Singapore. It is because of these concerns that the government amended legislation for parliamentary elections.

During a Parliament sitting in April 2006, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Balaji Sadasivan gave an overview of this legislation: "Political parties, candidates and election agents are permitted to use the Internet for election advertising based on a “positive list” of activities listed in the Election Advertising Regulations. The “positive list” ensures the responsible use of the Internet during the elections."

He emphasised, "Party political websites must be registered with the MDA. Failure to register is a breach of the class licence conditions. Private or individual bloggers can discuss politics. However, if they persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore, they are required to register with the MDA. During the election period, these registered persons will not be permitted to provide material online that constitutes election advertising."

It was interesting some individuals read this as a warning, and decided to anonymously discuss political issues in Singapore. One blog, for example, carried recordings of opposition party election rallies in Singapore.

Ironically, the Minister had sought to encourage otherwise, "We recognise that in our society, people will have their diverse opinion and some will want to share their opinion. But people should not take refuge behind the anonymity of the Internet to manipulate public opinion. It is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner."

Singapore's regulation of the internet is a pragmatic one, and one that takes a risk-based approach. It will not tolerate actions that seek to compromise its national interests. At the same time, it wants to provide internet users the opportunity to benefit from the intelligence one finds on the Internet.

As Associate Professor Ang Peng Hwa's research paper on censorship and the internet concludes, "The Singapore government knows that it cannot do much to censor the Internet. But it refuses to give up without a fight."

Blogs have upped the ante in this fight that continues.

Dharmendra Yadav

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