MDA urged to relax TV censorship rules

An Asian association of cable-TV and satellite broadcasters is urging Singapore to abolish its licensing and censorship requirements currently imposed on pay-TV operators and video retailers here.

The urgent call has come on the back of advances in technology - the latest being the sale of virtual private network (VPN) set-top boxes - that allow viewers here to stream uncensored movies from abroad.

If the Media Development Authority (MDA) does not relax its regulations, said the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (Casbaa), local broadcasters that abide by the rules will suffer.

"Casbaa is not asking the Government to ban VPNs," said the association, whose members include HBO, BBC, Disney and Bloomberg TV.

"However, if regulatory obligations are not imposed on offshore online competitors, it should not (be) imposed on the local players.

"Otherwise, MDA will simply be perpetuating discrimination against the local players," John Medeiros, chief policy officer of Casbaa, told The Straits Times.

All content shown or sold by local brick-and-mortar film distributors, and free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters, is subject to censorship guidelines as part of their licensing conditions.

Films must be classified for various age groups depending on the maturity of the themes. For instance, films containing nudity and violence meant for those at least 21 years old can be shown only in theatres, and viewed on video-on-demand platforms that come with parental locks. Some films may also need to be censored if they depict, say, sexual violence.

Last Thursday, Internet service provider ViewQwest started selling a new VPN set-top box, sparing movie fans the hassle of changing their computer and router settings to stream uncensored movies and drama series from overseas.

This can be done by using pre-installed Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go or BBC iPlayer apps once the box is plugged to the television and the Internet modem.

For the first time, Singtel, StarHub and M1 broadband subscribers do not need to switch broadband operator to use the set-top box.

Echoing Casbaa's view, a BBC Worldwide spokesman said it is "very disappointed that local regulations are being sidestepped by streaming set-top box providers".

"Such circumvention means that legitimate service providers who legally licence BBC content are at a severe disadvantage," the spokesman said.

When contacted, an MDA spokesman said: "VPNs are legitimate services that offer better privacy and security."

The authority said it adopts a "light touch" approach to regulate content which does not target the Singapore market.

It will intervene only if the content violates community standards or poses security risks, it added.

Asked if ViewQwest or local consumers have broken any laws for providing access to and paying for content overseas, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said only that consumers should refer to online content service providers' terms of use.

"VPNs have many uses... MinLaw will continue to engage stakeholders in discussions to further our understanding of the issue," its spokesman said.

"Given the international nature of VPNs, we will also monitor developments in other major jurisdictions."

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