Singapore will maintain light touch on Internet, says minister

By Tessa Wong and Leonard Lim | Source: The Straits Times
Singapore government’s approach to regulating the Internet with a “light touch” remains despite a new move to license online news sites, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

But the light touch does not mean the Internet and online behaviour are not regulated, he told reporters during a discussion as he addressed concerns that the rules were a first step towards tighter control of the Internet.

“Like our regulations in the physical world, our regulations for online space are meant to ensure that people are responsible for their actions, which have real-world consequences,” he said at the discussion at his ministry.

“There are actions that should not be condoned, whether online or offline. For example, someone who causes alarm to the public through false information should not get immunity simply because he operates online. Neither should someone who incites racial or religious hatred,” he said.

The new licensing rules were announced last week and took effect on Saturday.

Ten sites, which put out Singapore news regularly, each with at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month, will be licensed and have to put up a S$50,000 (US$39,900) performance bond.

The rules drew criticism, especially from the online community, who felt they were aimed at restricting online discourse.

A group calling itself “Free My Internet” said yesterday that the public should have been consulted before the changes were made. It is planning an online “blackout” of some sites tomorrow and a gathering at Speakers’ Corner on Saturday to protest against the ruling.

Asked if the new rules could have been communicated better, Yaacob said perhaps people could have been given more time to digest the changes.

Still, he maintained that the changes were not “a fundamental shift” but merely a “tweak”.

He said they were not triggered by any particular online incident or targeted at any website. Rather, they were driven by what he described as the “brutal forces” of media convergence brought about by technological change.

He noted that more Singaporeans now get their news and current affairs information online, and Internet content is published and spread swiftly.

“This makes it more important to ensure that online news sites with significant reach, and hence impact on Singaporeans, do not carry prohibited content and if they do, that they take down such content as soon as possible.”

The new licensing scheme is aimed at bringing regulatory parity to traditional and online news platforms.

Yaacob pointed out that although online sites have come under a class licence scheme since 1996, the Media Development Authority (MDA) has been restrained in asking for objectionable content to be removed.

It issued a take-down notice once for religiously offensive content last year. Another 23 instances over the years concerned other prohibited content such as pornographic material and advertisements soliciting for sex or sex chats, and most followed public complaints.

“There has not been an instance where the MDA has directed sites to take down content that is critical of the government or any minister,” he said.

Yaacob said the new rules are not as onerous as they have been made out to be by critics. “Nowhere do the guidelines state that news sites cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention to mislead the public,” he said.

The definition of “news” for this law was also not specially drafted but adapted from existing legislation. The content standards were also the same as those under the class licence scheme and the Internet Code of Practice.

So, there was “no logic” in arguments that licensed sites would be limited in what they do.

“There is even less logic in the argument that sites which are still class licensed will limit public discourse,” he added.

It would be best for people to see if activists are indeed limited in what they can say after the licences are issued, he said.

“I expect that the sites will continue to operate as before. I hope that the activists who are today making this far-fetched claim will be honest enough to admit it when the time comes,” he said.