June 17 Balancing trust and regulations

The issue of trust loomed large at a protest last Saturday against recently introduced regulations for news websites.

Called Free My Internet, it was organised by several bloggers and editors of sociopolitical sites. Though none of them have so far been directly affected by the ruling, which requires news websites to be individually licensed, protest organisers decried it as an attempt to clamp down on online discourse.

Several speakers took to the stage at Hong Lim Park to criticise the Government's assurance that it is acting "judiciously", arguing that this law places too much power in the state's hands. Why should citizens trust that the Government will not exploit the ruling for political interests, they asked.

But the tables were turned on them hours later at a press conference with representatives from online and mainstream media. The bloggers were asked who would function as a check on their websites - in other words, why should the public trust them?

It is a pertinent question, given the lukewarm public response to the movement thus far, which has been spearheaded by well-known sociopolitical sites such as The Online Citizen (TOC), TR Emeritus and Public House.

About 4,000 have signed the Free My Internet petition to do away with the regulations. While the number by itself may sound sizeable, consider the fact that these websites draw many more readers - TOC says it alone attracts more than 170,000 visitors a month. In this context, 4,000 accounts for a very small percentage of readers.

Even fewer people attended the protest last Saturday. Organisers estimated they attracted 2,000, less than half the crowd for the first Population White Paper protest.

Some Singaporeans may support the fundamental cause of Free My Internet, but could have kept their distance because they may not agree with the way the bloggers have conducted their campaign or their highly critical tone.

But my sense is that many Singaporeans did not bother to show up because they are in two minds about having a completely free Internet.

On the one hand, many believe websites should have the freedom to publish anything. In a survey of more than 2,300 Singaporeans conducted in May last year by research company Blackbox, only a third felt sites should be properly regulated like news providers, while nearly half felt websites should be able to say what they want. The rest were undecided. But on the other hand, Singaporeans also appear to want some form of policing, beyond websites' self-regulation.

One only needs to look at the numerous cases in the past few years where a police report is lodged the minute someone posts a racist or religiously offensive remark online.

Only 16 per cent of those surveyed by Blackbox felt that shaming offenders online would be enough - the rest either felt they should be sent a formal warning, or have legal action taken against them immediately.

Many also remain sceptical of what they read online. Only 1 to 3 per cent of respondents said they trust TOC and TR Emeritus the most.

It is true that most of our local sociopolitical websites regulate their own content and comments, and the community has at times been effective in policing itself. This could be seen in a recent case when bloggers called on netizens to stop posting graphic pictures of two boys who were run down by a lorry in Tampines.

But it has not been foolproof, as seen in other cases when they blatantly plagiarise content, or spread unverified rumours only to sweep them under the carpet without much by way of an apology when they are proven to be false.

Recent examples include a rumour that The New Paper had doctored a photo of cyclists on a road to make them look like that they were behaving recklessly. (The photo was real.)

Another rumour was that the makers of the Cannes prize-winning film Ilo Ilo had been refused government funding. (The state not only gave money for the production but also marketing and travel grants.)

These only serve to reinforce a lingering distrust among the people, and the Government, of the Internet community's claims that it can regulate itself.

All this points to an uphill task for the Free My Internet movement. Its immediate goal of pressuring the Government to repeal the licensing regime by July's parliamentary session is unlikely to be achieved, given the state's consistent position that Singapore should not have a completely free media. So perhaps Free My Internet needs to think long-term. Already they have demonstrated that the blogging community can be united and work together cohesively. They could leverage that to develop into a more organised constituency. Beyond advocating a rollback of Internet legislation, Free My Internet will have to convince Singaporeans that they can self- regulate.

I'm not suggesting that they come up with the Internet Code of Conduct the Government pushed for last year, which would see the Government overseeing its conception. Indeed, in a column I wrote last year when the code was first proposed, I had suggested that netizens be left alone to self-regulate, but also needed to step up to the plate and develop it further.

It appears that the Government and the public still remain uncertain of the online community's capability to develop self-regulation. Now would be a good time for them to get better at it, given the momentum of Free My Internet.

They can do so in whatever form they want it to be, without state oversight: guidelines for self-policing, a disciplinary committee, a workplan to improve the professionalism of sites - anything that could reassure others watching that they can do more to rein in their worst excesses.

This should not be too difficult, given that they already do informal self-regulation. Several sites have their own moderation policies.

At the protest's press conference, in answer to the question on who would check the websites, more than one blogger said they alert one another to mistakes published on their sites.

The hardest part, of course, is sticking to their framework and ensuring it is adequately enforced. The Internet is, by nature, free of hierarchy and that has always been the main obstacle to self- regulation. A blogger can point out another's mistake, but the offender doesn't have to correct it.

And though this clutch of sites may follow their own guidelines, there may be many more blogs or underground sites which choose to go their own way. The fact that many rogue sites do attract a sizeable audience is sometimes used as an argument against the Internet's ability to moderate itself.

But they are influential enough to at least set an example in local cyberspace. After their Saturday event, the Free My Internet organisers released a statement calling on the Government to withdraw the licensing regime. Only by doing so, they said, could the people's trust be "restored".

But the Government is not the only one that needs the people's faith. In making the call to be left alone, Free My Internet is essentially asking for the public to trust them too.

Shouldn't that trust be earned as well?

twong@sph.com.sg

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES