Jury still out on impact of MDA ruling

News of the Media Development Authority (MDA)'s new ruling this week to license news websites of a certain size has sent the online community into a tizzy over its implications, particularly on the freedom of expression online.

While MDA is standing its ground that such a move is merely to level the regulation framework for mainstream and online media, some prominent local websites have called for its withdrawal and are said to be planning a protest against it.

Amid the angry backlash and torrent of criticism, it is important to scrutinize MDA's latest move and objectively assess the material impact it will have on online media and how it will shape its future landscape.

The new rules, which come into effect on June 1, requires news websites that report on Singapore news at least once a week, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month, over a period of two months, to obtain an individual licence. These are to be renewed every year. The sites also have to put up a bond of $50,000 and have to remove content that breach MDA standards within 24 hours when notified to do so.

Ten sites have since been listed as requiring this licence, nine of which belong to mainstream media outfits and the remaining one is US-listed Yahoo! News.

Requiring sites that have reached a significant size to comply with the same regulations that govern traditional media is not necessarily a bad thing. (Why the regulations on traditional media are defined the way they are is a separate matter, and have been heavily debated historically.)

It is well documented that online content creators are often less discerning. Examples of objectionable content cited by MDA included those that goes against good taste, such as the gory pictures of therecent Tampines traffic accident in which two young boys died which made the rounds online; or those that may stoke racial or religious tensions such as the "Innocence of Muslims" video.

Seen in that light, you could argue that MDA's move puts more responsibility on news organisations with a decent readership - and who make financial profit from such traffic - to be more circumspect about what it publishes, whether it is applying more rigorous fact-checking or thinking twice about posting content that could potentially destabilise society, such as on race and religion.

Now, let's look at the other side of the coin. High profile local websites have accused MDA of creating a climate of censorship and repressing online media, which many critics have observed goes against the government's recent move towards transparency and consultative governance.

Although so far only ten sites have been identified, people are unhappy about the prospect of being called up to apply for this licence and the air of uncertainty that now pervades the online space.

Speaking as a website owner myself - I currently edit Eco-Business.com, which reports on sustainability news in the region and does report on Singapore news more than once a week - I am worried, like many others, because the site would not be able to cough up $50,000 to get a licence, what more face the prospect of losing it. But I do not think it is MDA's desire or intention to micro-manage online sites - which frankly speaking, is an impossible task.

In a recent Facebook note, MDA further clarified that an individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.

Still, a sore point for many is that the regulation seems to have been intentionally left vague. My reading is that MDA probably does not want to regulate the sites beyond the 10 it has identified as being big enough. But will it include others in the future? Maybe yes, maybe not. But it likely wants the option, hence this new regulation.

Sites that fall in the grey area include The Online Citizen (TOC), which is in a war of words with MDA over its website traffic.There appears to be some disconnect on the method of determining website traffic between MDA and TOC, MDA says TOC's traffic does not meet the requirement while TOC says it does. MDA's definition is that the website must have an average of 50,000 unique I.P addresses from Singapore each month for at least two months before they fall into the category. Both MDA and TOC should publish the exact metrics of how it calculates its site traffic to clarify the issue.

That aside, however, the larger question is whether MDA's ruling truly curtails the level of freedom that Singapore's online media currently enjoys.

In my opinion, the jury is still out on that.

Meanwhile, there is nothing stopping local sites from continuing to post their content as usual - in fact, those behind such sites have continued to do so. This is the right response to this ruling. It will affect the online media landscape only as much as the online media players will allow it to.

Until the MDA acts again to require more sites to be licensed, or actually issue notices for content from the existing 10 sites to be taken down, it is hard to determine what the new tone of internet regulation is going forward.

In its absence, online content creators would be foolish to censor themselves pre-emptively or claim that they are censored, when it hasn't happened.

MDA has said on record that its move is "not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom" or place "onerous obligations" on licensees. The public should hold them to their word. And if it is indeed the intention of the government to achieve "parity" between online and traditional media and nothing more sinister, then political leaders should come out to reassure citizens that it intends to maintain the 'light touch' approach towards internet regulation. They have so far been conspicuously silent.

On why there has been no public consultation or parliamentary debates, law experts I spoke to said the law allows the government to gazette changes in subsidiary legislation when it is not broader in its power than statutory legislation. This is why no parliamentary debate was required. Conducting public consultations on this matter would also be futile as it is sure to meet with a similar angry response. This is a case of political leaders deciding this is an unpopular but necessary move, and they have gone ahead with it.

Whether the wider public will accept this is another matter. But what is clear that the relationship between the internet and government has changed gears again - for the better or worse, we will find out soon enough.