By Terry Xu
Over 50 people attended a two hour long dialog jointly organized by the Singapore Computer Society (SCS) and the Internet Society, Singapore Chapter at the Singapore Computer Society Resource Center.
The dialog was organized to analyse and discuss the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s new licensing rules that took effect from 1st June 2013.
The panelists invited to sit in at the dialog were Mr Bryan Tan (Partner, Pinsent Masons MPillay LLP), Mr Aubeck Kam (Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Communications and Information), and Mr Kuek Yu-Chang (Internet policy expert).
Deliberating on international practices
Mr Bryan Tan brought out a comparison between the 1996 media regulation and the new MDA’s licensing rules. Since 1996, all sites and online service providers has automatically enrolled under the class licenses and there is no changes in the obligation of the service providers on their contents standard. The main difference lies on the $50,000 performance bond and 24 hours take down of contents in breach of contents standard.
Mr Tan in his presentation also raised an interesting question on how much weight Facebook announcements hold in reference to the MDA Facebook clarification on bloggers’ concern.
Answering a question on whether there have been similar legislation in Asia or other parts of the world, Mr Tan said that different countries are looking at different ways, while not all will follow the exact same way but different country already started out on this, “the registration cum performance bond tactic, I don’t think I have seen that before, they usually go for the more severe, they will throw you in jail kind of remedy especially in Vietnam and Cambodia.” “Government do want to seek some form of control over the internet services and it varies between various degrees.”
Mr Kuek said that the issues that are happening in Singapore is a global issue that there are valid concerns that the country is trying to address. But he also stated that the Internet has no boundaries – if the response is not calibrated according what the others are doing, there is a risk of fragmenting the Internet by disconnecting with the others.
Trust and clarity
“Trust MDA’s track record”, is what Mr Aubeck Kam said while citing that no websites have been ever asked to take down content such as criticism of the government as there is nothing that prevents that in the content standards obligation. He emphasized on the point that there are no major changes to what the individual licensees had to comply with. The two main reasons that Mr Kam state for the new MDA regulation comes from the need for online news providers to take responsibility for the content they create and due to the rapid media convergence happening in Singapore.
The justification of which Mr Kam gave for the 24 hour take-down notice stems on the significant outreach of the news sites. The content which the identified significant news sites carry would influence public opinion and need urgent attention to address nonfactual reports and facts. But Mr Kam also states the 24-hour deadline would only take effect from the time when a formal take-down notice is issued as the government understands the complexity of decision making for large companies and the difference between timezones.
Other questions were thrown at Mr Kam, such as why a limit of 50,000 unique IPs was used as a benchmark for one of the criteria. One participant also brought out a point that niche sites have their one of their criteria for being licensed as being 100,000 unique viewers. Mr Kam’s reply did not really answer the question in full but went about explaining that the measurements for sites are constantly evolving and the standards are not cast in stone. He went on further they are still trying to find the right proxy but felt if they ported the 100,000 unique views directly, it would have been more bewildering.
Donaldson Tan, representing the FreeMyInternet movement, asked Mr Kam about the issue of government control over the ownership and management of licensed websites. Mr Kam reiterated that there are only two changes to how companies operate, which is the $50,000 performance bond and the 24 hour content take down obligation.
Limits and possibilities of new rules
Dr. John Ure, Executive Director of AIC asked Mr Kam on why is there a need for the new rules given that existing laws and regulations have already covered restricted content. Mr Ure also cited a finding from a study conducted in India, stating that a major constraint for Asian Internet companies going global as compared to their Western counter parts are rules and regulations that constraints their activity in one way or another.
Outside of the MDA new licensing rules, there were also questions on press accreditation, on whether the government would extend the press accreditation to Yahoo Singapore given that it recongnizes the significant outreach of the news platform and that it is the only new platform among the ten other news sites that does not have press accreditation.
Mr Kam responded that “government press accreditation is really just government press accreditation and the government does not warrant or provide any guarantee, and certainty does not recommend any private organization should rely on the fact that the holder has a press accreditation card and therefore suspend their own need to make their own decisions about who ought to be invited.”