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Show us you mean business

~ By Siew Kum Hong ~

There's been a lot of talk about the Government's proposal for an online code of conduct, and last Thursday the Institute of Public Studies organised a closed-door discussion on the topic. It was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, so I'm not going to go into details on what was discussed.

What I will say, is that the CEO of the Media Development Authority, Mr Aubeck Kam, spoke at the discussion. Given that the attendance included a whole bunch of socio-political bloggers, he predictably heard a lot of very critical and skeptical opposition to the suggestion of a new code of conduct.

I thought Mr Kam handled the criticism pretty well. He came across as being very thoughtful, earnest and sincere.

But none of that changes the reality of what we face today. Nobody in the internet community -- at least, nobody affiliated with or actively supporting the PAP or the Government -- believes that, whatever else the code is genuinely intended to achieve, the Government does not hope to use such a code to control or suppress, or at the least moderate and blunt, the storm of anti-PAP sentiment on the Internet.

Claims about the lack of sheltered online space for moderate views (which is really code for pro-PAP/Government voices, or at least voices that are sympathetic to the PAP and the Government), beg the question as to why they deserve special treatment as compared to others who have dared to stick out their necks to speak their minds.

Yes, I fundamentally believe that it is better to have more voices speaking up than less. But people have to be willing to stand up for their views -- and I have to question the commitment of anyone who thinks that being flamed and criticised is too high a price to pay, and that growing the thick skin that is really just the ante for online participation today is too difficult for them.

Those of us who have stood up and spoken up on views deemed anti-establishment and anti-Government bear our own risks in doing so. Defamation lawsuits, sniping and flaming, cyber-harassment, invasion of privacy, police complaints, possible threats to employment prospects, and yes the Internal Security Act -- these threats and risks all come with the territory.

An online code of conduct will do nothing to protect us from those risks. And yet we continue to do what we do. I cannot speak for others, but I have very limited sympathy for those with such thin skins that they shy away from speaking up just because of the risk that they may be flamed. Compared to what some have experienced and undergone, that almost sounds trivial.

This Government's actions against its critics have laid the foundations for the skepticism greeting this proposal. After all, it had gazetted The Online Citizen as a "political association" in the guise of ensuring that TOC does not receive foreign funding -- thereby also ensuring that, as a practical matter, TOC will almost certainly not receive local funding from the usual donors foundations, and setting a lowly limit of S$5000/year for anonymous donations from local donors. So it is difficult to accept the Government's claims that the code of conduct does not have the collateral objective of silencing or muting critical voices.

If the PAP and the Government are genuine and sincere that they do not seek to restrict content by advocating such an online code of content, then they can take concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to maintaining free speech online. There are a few easy steps that the PAP and the Government can take, to put their money where their mouths are:

1. lift the gazetting of TOC as a political association.

2. legislate a statutory safe harbour for websites, such that they are not liable for defamatory user comments if they take down those user comments when they receive a third-party complaint -- which is something that the Government-appointed AIMS Committee had recommended back in December 2008.

3. lead by example. The PAP can itself respect diversity of views. It can commit to cease deleting non-profane comments asking hard questions on its pages, and instead have genuine conversations with critics. It can commit to refraining from defamation lawsuits against critics. It can refrain from tarring-and-feathering its online critics.

Somehow, I don't see any of those things happening anytime soon. I would be glad to be proven wrong.


PS. I would accept that there is some merit to the argument that online "witch hunts" are problematic. But the real problem there is invasion of privacy, and not the content as such. The problem arises from the disclosure of names, addresses, photos, occupations, schools, etc., and it is irrelevant whether that disclosure is made online or offline (e.g. by way of flyers distributed and posters displayed near the victim's home) -- the only difference is in scale. While there is good reason to object to such behaviour, the right answer to this is through privacy laws, and not through an online code of conduct.

PPS. One participant made a valid point about how the absence of a self-regulating code of conduct could increase the pressure on the authorities to rely increasingly on the heavy hand of the law on increasingly marginal cases, in the absence of any alternative mechanism. Something for everyone to bear in mind -- not that it ultimately changes my personal view on the matter.

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