MDA regulation of websites – Parliament sits on lack of assurance

By Howard Lee

If Minister for Communication and Information Yaccob Ibrahim has hoped to assure the public and Parliamentarians yesterday that the revised licensing Broadcasting Act was justified and equitable, he did a mighty dismal job.

In a debate that spanned the greater part of an hour, which saw no less than eight Members of Parliament from all three represented parties raising questions and concerns flagged by industry and advocacy group #FreeMyInternet alike, Yaccob has maintained that the regulation was necessary, without elaborating on why it is so.

Old wine, new skins?

Yes, he cited three trends for why the Media Development Authority has decided to go ahead with this regulation – digital convergence, changing readership habits, and an uncertain future Internet landscape – but if he had any suitable examples to substantiate these reasons with, MPs and the public are left mostly in the dark.

The Minister is not wrong. We are indeed seeing a convergence of media, where more of what we see in print is heading online. It is also clear that newspaper readership is declining, with more readers shifting to multiple online sources for their news. And to say that the future Internet landscape is uncertain is not even a crystal ball moment – any secondary school student who has paid attention in class would be able to make that claim.

But if that were the case, why use laws meant for traditional media to regulate online media? The Minister has said in Parliament that the definition of “news” in the amended Broadcasting Act was borrowed from the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. So MDA has effectively hacked together bits and pieces of ‘old’ media regulation to try and regulate ‘new’ media? Minimally, would not a complete revision of both Acts, taking into account the new media landscape, be more meaningful?

The Minister has also maintained that the regulation should not affect the operation of the regulated sites, since the amendments are just two ‘tweaks’ to an Act they should already be familiar with. Perhaps for the likes of Singapore Press Holding and Mediacorp, the amendments are nothing more than an extension of current practices, the $50,000 bond nothing more than a snort, and the 24-hour take-down notice a walk-in-the-park for their army of staffers.

But to brush off the amendments as ‘tweaks’ is to effectively see online media through the same lens as traditional media. For an online entity, particularly those that thrive on agility and adaptability, all done on a shoe-string budget, should we even expect them to level-up financially and bureaucratically? Since the Minister has no clear intention of excluding these little players, have they been consulted?

And it is not just the little players who are concerned. Even the big boys are concerned enough to raise the amendments as an issue that affects innovation, as exemplified by the open letter from the Asian Internet Coalition to the Minister, who could not explain why the letter came to be, since AIC has apparently been consulted on the amendments. Perhaps there is really something about the online world that the Minister has yet to learn about. Why then even make this half-baked attempt to regulate something that you do not understand?

Questionable definition of ‘content standards’

But the debate in Parliament gets more ambiguous. Yaccob has indicated on at least three occasions during Parliament that the requirements specific to individual licensees of the Broadcasting Act – the imposition of the 24-hour take down notice and the $50,000 bond – was designed to hold the ten current licensees to higher content standards and responsibility.

NCMP Gerald Giam requested for clarification on this: Is the current class license not working adequately such that the individual license is needed? To which the Minister continued to insist that the media environment has changed. But the question remains mostly unanswered: How would the two ‘tweaks’ to the Broadcasting Act then help as an effective deterrent to poor content standards?

Interestingly, Giam’s other questions on the take-down notices issued by MDA and Yaccob’s reply shed more light on how ineffective the individual licensing could be. Of the 24 take-down notices the MDA has issued so far, none were directed at the ten sites currently regulated under the amended Act. All have complied with the take-down request, even without the two ‘tweaks’ having been implemented.

Conversely, there are at least two cases among the ten regulated sites that risked causing widespread social unrest and panic, a fear that the Minister has claimed to be a primary concern that motivated the amendments. These were the publishing of what amounted to a straw poll by the Straits Times on the Punggol East by-election, and the fabricated story by STOMP on subway trains moving with doors open. MDA did not issue any take-down notices or even publish stern warnings for these two cases of falsehoods. Why then would we believe that MDA might be more inclined to do so under the individual licensing scheme?

Assurance not found in letter of the law

Perhaps what is more worrying is what was not clearly articulated in Parliament. The Minister continued to insist on the government’s light touch approach to the Internet, that bloggers can continue doing what they do, without fear of the regulation being used to quash voices critical of the government. NCMP Lina Chiam then raised an interesting challenge: For the Minister to issue exclusion orders for sites like TOC and TR Emeritus to be exempted from the individual licensing scheme.

The Minister did not accept, nor respond directly. In fact, all he did was a double take, by suggesting that websites could be regulated “should they morph into online news sites”.

The question that arises is how this “morphing” should be interpreted. If TOC, for instances, continues business-as-usual and should one day receive a demand from MDA to receive an individual license, would the burden of proof be on MDA to show how TOC has morphed into a news site? How much time, if any, would website owners be given to respond to the demand or appeal against it? Would they be able to publish and debate on these explanations openly? All this is sorely missing in the letter of the law, and the Minister has done little to clarify or assure.

Again, a matter of trust

If nothing else, the Parliament session on the MDA regulation left Singapore with a lot more queries to be answered and ambiguity to be resolved. The Minister’s overarching response, however, seems to be, “trust the government to do the right thing”.

My apologies, Minister, but trust is to be earned through actions, not to be requested for through words. And offering a limp defence to your policy is not going to help either.

As it currently stands, the amendments to the Broadcasting Act has drawn the ire of a broad swath of society – bloggers, activists, industry, Parliamentarians, and all the 74% who have indicated on CNA’s Talking Point show that they believe the regulation would affect content quality online.

Clearly, the government has lost the people’s trust on this matter. The way to regain trust is not to side-step questions, draw ambiguous assumptions about something you do not fully understand, and then pretend that it is done to maintain ‘content standards’ that has little basis of proof of effectiveness.

The way to regain trust is to give unequivocal assurance that the government does not intend to oppress freedom of information; be clear in policy; and consult broadly, openly and honestly with those who have every chance to be affected by it.

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