Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Blogs Should Self-Regulate


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.

Dharmendra Yadav


Anonymous said...

I believe that self-regulation is by definition in the form of an invisible hand, much like how free markets supposedly regulated (ideally), not conscious regulation by members of the community.

When a central body is designated to regulate, there is no difference whether it is made up of the public or by the govt. They will face the same issues of deciding what is right or wrong, policing, enforcing. The whole exercise will still fail as no one can (or should) claim control over the internet.

As long as there is sufficient connectivity amongst netizens, extreme views will be taken apart. Yes, Tomorrow.sg may be a part of the self-regulation process, but it is not because they have the absolute authority to decide what is right or wrong. Acting only as a central node, it shortens the 'distance' between the local blogs, allowing blog readers like myself to access different views. Through sufficient follow-up comments and trackbacks, there is an aggregate opinion, the self-regulated result. These central nodes do have strong influences, as they can choose what to post/link and what not to, but if the general opinion is that they are failing in their role, another node can arise to take their place.

That said, reality is far from ideal, but my point is that self-regulation is not and should not be about top-down enforcement of rules, be it by the govt or by public citizens.

Anonymous said...

As with many union type organizations in Singapore, the idea of an association really doesnt hold much promise if it cant protect its members like the american counterparts. Protection from frivolous lawsuits? Up to now the state and state related individuals are the ones that tend to use legal routes more readily (think philip yeo).

Andrew said...

Singapore maintains a system whereby practically every media outlet ultimately is controlled by the Government. Bloggers are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake and they are here to put Singapore's Mainstream Media in check. Any intervenes or regulation imposed on netizens by the government and its media partner will be seen as authoritative and political.

Chia Hern Keng said...

[The article] explains why more governmental regulation over blogs is in the offing in countries like China and Malaysia. The writer therefore suggests self-regulation on the part of bloggers as a pre-emptive measure.

However, given the individuality of blogging, ethical regulation by an association would likely to be resisted, even disdained, by bloggers. Besides, in a sense, blogs are already self-regulating. The last thing one wants is to have an unpopular site. Although I do not blog now, I was doing so years before blogs became mainstream.

So I know for a fact that one has to be self-regulating because one not only has to write well to be read, one also has to respect racial, religious and political sensitivities of readers. Bloggers are not as free as they appear. In a sense, what you write is as much determined by the market as any mainstream media.

As it stands now, even without new regulations on blogging, governments are capable of identifying the owners of blogs — take the cases of local bloggers who were prosecuted for inflammatory ethnic remarks posted online.

This is therefore another reason why bloggers have to be, or are, already self-regulating. Only the foolhardy or ignorant would write defamatory and deliberately seditious remarks.

If blogging were to come under the umbrella of a blogging association, its spirit would be lost, with one's words having to be strictly vetted by others even if they are one's peers.

Of course, I'm not saying that some kind of big-brother protection from an association — such as for professional legal counsel and defence — would not be helpful in some circumstances.

But if, some day, a blogger is brought before the court merely for criticising his government or its policies, then it would be apparent that this is because civil rights are wanting in the country in the first place. That being the case, one can see the futility of any such legal help.

Even as we discuss self-regulation of blogs, we should ask why, in the first place, there is such a fervour for anti-establishment comments in Singapore. Is this because, to a large extent, blogging is a reaction to the want of space for open public discourse?

Would it not more fruitful to deal with the cause than to merely treat the symptoms?

Anonymous said...

"Daddy, i promise i will behave. I promise i will only play on the frontyard."

"If i'm a good boy, would you let me play outside?"

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