ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 5 DECEMBER 2006
With Malaysia contemplating tough Internet laws to control bloggers, and controversy in China over the move to get bloggers to register their real names, it looks like some governments are prepared to challenge popular wisdom and attempt to bridle the Internet.
And no wonder, with an estimated nine million blogs in cyberspace and one more born every 7.4 seconds, according to The Scientist magazine.
Before state regulators step in with the heavy hand of the law, should the blogging community pre-emptively introduce some form of self-regulation?
There is reason for authorities to take seriously the growing power of blogs. Last week, it was reported that an online survey by Microsoft found that about half of Internet users in Singapore think blogs are as trustworthy as mainstream media.
Politicians have acknowledged the need to engage this growing cyber-constituency and begun using blogs to communicate their thinking on issues of the day.
The power of blogs has also created unique issues for our law enforcers. The zero tolerance policy on negative ethnic and religious content has seen a handful of individuals convicted or warned, while the recent proposed amendments to the Penal Code — if passed — would give our police and state prosecutors more teeth to deal with offending blogs.
Yet, for all this, few preventive steps have been taken in Singapore to help bloggers stay out of trouble. Whatever has been achieved so far has been piecemeal.
In August, the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University held a workshop to help bloggers write in a lawful, responsible manner, covering basic issues of copyright, defamation and so on.
Some employers such as IBM provide their employees with guidelines relating to their personal websites or blogs. My own employer in the financial sector has a similar policy. Recognising that what employees share on their personal blogs can reflect on the organisation, it gives them tips on how to write constructively and stay within the limits of the law.
Unfortunately, the use of such policies are limited to the larger organisations. What of the larger proportion of bloggers employed in smaller organisations, or who are self-employed or students?
At a conference last week, director of British Press Complaints Commission Tim Toulmin suggested that "blogs and other internet sites should be covered by a voluntary code of practice similar to that for newspapers in the United Kingdom".
Such a code could provide avenues for "people angered at content" to seek redress.
Meanwhile, Cyberjournalist.net, which is linked to the Online News Association in New York, has proposed a Bloggers' Code of Ethics which it encourages bloggers to use.
The code lays down best practices for bloggers to "be honest and fair", to "minimise harm" and to "be accountable". This is modelled after a similar code for journalists created by the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States.
Perhaps these are ideas that the Media Development Authority can look into. Or even better — given bloggers' instinctive aversion to anything state-prescribed — perhaps local denizens of the blogosphere could get together to evolve their own self-regulating code.
They could take their cue from the Media Bloggers Association (MBA) in the US. This is "dedicated to promoting, protecting and educating" its members; supporting the development of "citizen journalism" as a distinct form of media; and helping to extend the power of the press — with all the rights and responsibilities this entails — to citizens.
The MBA, one blogger argues, does valuable service by "helping to shield bloggers from intimidation and frivolous defamation lawsuits, a problem that has been getting worse recently".
Perhaps the Singapore Press Club can play a similar role, if it amends its constitution to appeal to a wider category of citizen journalists — although it would not be surprising if its leadership prefers to focus its resources more on full-time journalists in the mainstream media.
A more obvious route is for bloggers to form their own association. There are already informal channels for collaboration among bloggers, which they may wish to take further. Some got together to organise the Singapore Bloggers Convention last year. Another fruit of collaboration is Tomorrow.sg, a blog aggregator featuring current postings from the local blogosphere.
There is an increasing need for bloggers to stand up, represent and self-regulate their own community more formally. This is also ideal. Otherwise, like other media, blogs may soon find themselves under closer scrutiny by media regulators in Singapore.