New rules 'will make netizens more cynical'

Singapore is probably the first and only democratic country to require certain websites to post a significant monetary bond before they can continue publishing, says former NMP and online commentator Siew Kum Hong.

SINGAPORE - Mr Siew Kum Hong, a former Nominated MP and regular online commentator, gives his take on MDA's new licensing scheme

What do you make of the new licensing framework that the Media Development Authority announced this week, and its impact on the media landscape?

This is a significant retreat from the "light touch" approach to Internet censorship that the Singapore Government has espoused since the late 1990s.

Not only was Singapore the first and only country in the world to regulate a socio-political community blog in the same way it regulates political parties (that is, gazetting The Online Citizen as a "political association"), it is now also probably the first and only democratic country in the world to require websites, that meet certain requirements, to post a significant monetary bond before they can continue publishing.

Do you see the new regulations as having an impact on online discourse and readers' comments?

Yes, but not in the way the regulators would have intended. It will make people more cynical about the PAP Government. As for readers' comments, this regulation will probably have minimal effect on their behaviour.

Other factors - such as anonymity or the lack thereof - will continue to have a much greater effect on what comments get posted.

The rules, says the MDA, are to give parity to the frameworks governing traditional news media and Internet news sites. What is your view?

In the first place, these measures do not establish regulatory parity.

For example, the MDA can order an online news site to remove content within 24 hours, otherwise it may lose its $50,000 bond. But there is no equivalent for newspapers - if The Straits Times publishes an article prohibited under MDA guidelines, it is not obligated to recall all unsold copies within 24 hours. And while all newspapers are presumably subject to the same licensing conditions, select Internet sites are now subject to discriminatory treatment.

But even if there should be regulatory parity, why should we achieve that by reducing the freedom on the Internet? Why can't we liberalise the mainstream media?

Some see the new regulation as instituting more responsibility on news sites but others label it as censorship. What's your take on the issue?

I have no doubt that this is an attempt to establish a mechanism where the Government can censor the Internet if it wants to, similar to how it can censor offline media. The power to compel content removal is simply the power to censor outright.

If the intent was to ensure responsible and accurate reporting, which is the purported reason for regulating traditional media, then surely the MDA should have chosen to include the power to order the publication of an update or correction as well. But this does not seem to be the case, at least based on the MDA's own announcement.

The Government has also said it will introduce legislation to give it powers to enforce this licensing regulation on overseas-based sites. Is this tenable?

Very untenable in reality. China has shown that the only way to enforce local laws against overseas-based sites with any success is to block them. Singapore, as an open economy built on a free flow of information, cannot afford to implement a Great Firewall - it will destroy our economy.

So if the Government does introduce such legislation, the most it can do is to require international outlets with some small local operations (for example, BBC) to register as well if they want to continue with their local operations. They will simply shut down their local operations or reduce their coverage of Singapore - both are undesirable outcomes.

But this legislation will be useless against sites like Sammyboy, which have no visible local presence and simply don't care anyway.