Licensing framework for Internet news sites: Changes are tweaks to existing scheme

The Internet licensing framework which came into effect on June 1 sparked a lively debate in Parliament on Monday.

Replying to questions from Members of Parliament, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim maintained that the new ruling places traditional news providers on a more consistent regulatory framework.

But he said the framework applies only to a "small number of news sites and does not affect the overwhelming majority of Internet content providers".

But why was there a lack of consultation regarding the new framework?

In his reply to the questions by MPs, Dr Yaacob reiterated that there was no change to the existing class licensing scheme.

And because the content standards have remained unchanged and the licence will not impact the public in general, Dr Yaacob said the Ministry "did not feel there was a need for wider public consultation before the licencing framework was announced".

The new framework "is not a major change" but a "tweaking of the class licensing scheme" which has been in place since 1996.

But as Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad put it, there may even be "the perception that we have rushed this and announced it (the rules) abruptly".

His Ministry did not rush this new rule through, maintained Dr Yaacob.

He said:

"Although the public expects the Government to be consultative, it also expects the Government to discharge its responsibilities properly and not be held hostage to special interest or lobby groups.

"Where there is a major policy shift, the Government will consult affected parties and, if need be, the matter would be brought before the House for debate."

Said Dr Yaacob: "If the Internet community doesn't understand, I will be very worried.

"We must agree news is important because it helps us to make informed decisions and if it is not done responsibly, it could have disastrous effects."

The new licensing framework affects 10 sites.

Nine of them are run by two of Singapore's major media companies - Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp - and the 10th is Yahoo! News Singapore.

Under the new framework, an individual licence is a must for websites that carry more than one news story about Singapore a week and get more than 50,000 Singapore visitors a month.

The licence entails putting up a $50,000 performance bond.

Also, if or when told by the Government to take down prohibited content, the websites must comply within 24 hours.

Unfounded fears

Dr Yaacob said fears that the new framework would stifle Internet freedom in Singapore are unfounded.

A framework is needed as more Singaporeans head online to get their news.

He said: "We have to hold the news sites, online sites to a slightly higher standard and responsibility compared to the class licence. "But we must agree that we have to hold them to the same responsibilities as we do for foreign newspapers operating in Singapore.

We don't allow them to meddle in local politics.

"So we have to recognise that the environment has changed, it is about news.

"We expect high standards in the physical world of news reporting. Why are we not expecting the same standards from those reporting news online?"

But have the new rules affected Singapore's "pro-business environment", asked Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng.

Five major Internet and technology companies - Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo! and cloud computing corporation Salesforce - last week expressed concern over the new legislation, which they said could affect Singapore's business-friendly image.

The five are members of the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association representing their interests in Internet policy issues in the region.

"I am also puzzled why they issued that statement even though we have clarified," Dr Yaacob replied.

"I'd like to assure the House and members of the public that we don't think this will affect the international reputation of Singapore because this has nothing to do with doing business in Singapore."

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