Indirect consequences of MDA licensing

By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong

The government's proposal to regulate Singapore news websites, "on the same basis as printed press",
has aroused much discussion, but most of it was not directly relevant to the current proposal, which
actually applies to only 10 websites operating now, 9 within the Singapore Press Holdings orbit (the
remaining one is Yahoo Singapore), as it requires the sites to be locally hosted. The extended scene
is however much more interesting.

yahoo singapore

 

First there is the very idea of "press regulation". If you accept that current rules concerning the
printing press are sound, then you would see nothing alarming in applying similar rules to the web; if
however you oppose the press regulation regime to start with, you would obviously be against applying
it to websites too. With the two sides divided in this way from the start, any discussion is likely to be
unproductive.

Second, once the regulatory regime is established, is extension to foreign hosted websites reporting
Singapore news likely? If one believes so, then it is useful to speculate on how this might be achieved.
Here the precedent of the foreign printed media circulation restriction becomes interesting: since the
late 80s, the government had the power to "gazette" individual foreign publications and restrict their
circulation numbers. Far Eastern Economic Review (no longer a news weekly), New York Times and
International Herald Tribune were among those gazetted at various points.

Can similar penalties be invoked against websites that infringe regulations? While there is no
direct equivalent of circulation limitation through numbers of copies printed/imported, the local
internet service providers can be required to impose limits on total numbers of page views for a part-
icular website. This immediately raises the issue of sites having mirror and cache locations, but such
technical problems can be solved if there is determination to enforce the restrictions. It is also
possible to bypass the local ISPs via foreign linkups, but given the competition, troublesome to
access new site would quickly lost their audience.

While many bloggers and small websites publish comments and news free, any site attracting high
traffic would need finance for large bandwidth. (We might recall the repeated calls for donations on
temasekreview.com a couple of years ago.) Normally, it is able to generate income through advertising
(which the new version of temasekreview, tremeritus.com, seems to be doing as it no longer calls
for donations). Restricted page views would obviously reduce advertising effectiveness in a particular
market.

Separate from the press regulation issue is the past use of defamation and contempt of court laws on
particular sites and bloggers. These have rather different applicability, and discussions should avoid
lumping these two issues together.

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Dr Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.

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