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Licence to a more civil online discourse

Communications professor and director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre Ang Peng Hwa speak to Leonard Lim and Tessa Wong. -ST
Leonard Lim and Tessa Wong

Mon, Jun 03, 2013
The Straits Times

Prof Ang says the benefit of being civil online is that "you can advertise seriously. It becomes commercially viable and win-win. The site provider gets to make some revenue, readers come on, and the advertiser loves it".

Ten news sites that provide regular reports on Singapore and have significant reach will need individual licences from today, as regulators bid to align regulations for online news platforms with those for print and broadcast.

The Media Development Authority stressed that the move, announced on Tuesday, was not to clamp down on Internet freedom. But many in the online fraternity interpreted it as a way to rein them in. The new licence requires holders to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified. This could be something that goes against good taste, offends religious sensitivities, or relates to vice.

Communications professor and director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre Ang Peng Hwa and Siew Kum Hong, a former Nominated MP and regular online commentator, speak to Leonard Lim and Tessa Wong.

What do you make of the new licensing framework, and its impact on the media landscape in Singapore?

 It's a bold step in the sense that other people haven't done it, but small in that it's being confined to news sites and commercial players.

It seems targeted at intentional news providers with a sizeable audience, and I do not think the rules would have a big impact on them. These professional news providers know what the prohibited content is and what the rules are.

But one problem might be in readers' comments.

It adds to cost as you need somebody on standby, to respond to the MDA's request to take down the content.

The ruling will be more problematic for amateur sites, and maybe civil society groups, with less resources. The impact would be to constrain the size of the media market, and benefit the incumbents.

Start-ups have to worry about growing - if you reach a sizeable market, you suddenly have this additional cost.

It may not have a chilling effect on the content of news providers, but on media start-ups. Do you see the regulations as having an impact on online discourse and readers' comments?

Readers' comments, especially anonymous ones, are a global problem. They can be toxic.

If we were to give it more time, the civility will probably increase. But I think in Singapore, we're not willing to be so patient. For that reason, some have accused us of being a nanny state.

I see the rule as an effort to make online discourse more civil, but the Ministry of Communications and Information doesn't come out to say that. If they do, many would agree with the intent.

The benefit of being civil online is you can also advertise seriously. It becomes commercially viable and win-win.

The site provider gets to make some revenue, readers come on, and the advertiser loves it as people hang out there.

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

Not many countries are putting offline rules into the online regime.

It is more likely the new media will change the old media rules but in Singapore, we are being "conservative" and applying old media rules to the new media.

There are some concerns there, like I said, potential stifling of new media innovations. 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?

It depends partly on how you define censorship.

To us, censorship is third-party intervention between a willing sender and willing receiver.

If people are not willing to receive the content, you can't say it's censorship.

Hate speech, for example, should be removed, you might argue it's not censorship.

Censorship comes in if comments are made and for some reason deleted and people feel it's a valid comment.

Right now the new rules don't seem like censorship as they're removing "prohibited content" to do with public order issues.

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

If this legislation is for news sites, it is tenable. But it's not in line with best practices. It wouldn't be good for business, education and research.

Blocking news sites will be a loss to Singapore.

limze@sph.com.sg


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