Motion speech in Parliament on MDA internet regulations: Mrs Lina Chiam, NCMP

Today on 8 July 2013 in Parliament, Mrs Lina Chiam, NCMP and Chairman of the opposition Singapore People’s Party (SPP), raised an adjournment motion to speak on the new Media Development Authority’s (MDA) regulations of 28 May for licensing what they define as “news sites”.

Also, the SPP has just released a video on YouTube in which Mrs Lina Chiam speaks about the party’s concerns over the MDA regulations.

Below is the speech made in parliament by Lina Chiam.

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Madam Speaker,

May I first thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise the matter of the Media Development Authority’s licensing framework for news websites in Singapore, on this Motion for the Adjournment.

 

Introduction

  1. On the 28th of May, the MDA announced a new licensing regime for Singapore news websites. These regulations require what are defined by MDA as online news sites, and which are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months, to put up a performance bond of S$50,000, and to comply within 24 hours to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards. These regulations were to take effect just 4 days later, on the 1st of June.
  1. That provoked an uproar among bloggers and, indeed, many Singaporeans.
  1. A protest against the MDA regulations was staged at Hong Lim Park on the 8th of June by a coalition of bloggers called #FreeMyInternet.
  1. For Singaporeans who run small blogs or who post comments on sites, they were concerned how the regulations would affect them.
  1. More recently, five members of the Asia Internet Coalition – Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo and Salesforce – have called the new MDA rules “unwarranted and excessive”. These are the world’s major companies providing internet-related services. This issue is now affecting Singapore’s business-friendly image and reputation as a media hub.
  1. The Government is trying to assure Singaporeans that they are not out to clamp down on internet freedom. The Acting Minister for Manpower, in speaking about these media regulations, said on television that Singaporeans can continue to air their views online. But what does that really mean? The Minister for Manpower also said that the regulations “do not encompass blogs” but may if“blogs evolve into news sites”. The definition of news sites under the regulations, as they stand, are so arbitrary, and can encompass any website posting at least one news-related article in a week.
  1. That is why Singaporeans continue to believe that the regulations had been crafted to censor blogs, especially those that discuss politics. Once the $50,000 performance bond is imposed on a community-run blog, they are effectively forced to shut down; such community-run blogs are unlikely to be able to afford to put down that amount of money, and for it to be subjected to the prerogative of MDA on points such as the “24-hour take-down” rule.
  1. This is not just about the ‘better communication’ of the new MDA rules, as the Minister for Communications and Information put it. There are legal issues that have not been addressed. Most of all, this issue had not even been put before this House for scrutiny and debate until today – a full 38 days after the regulations have already taken effect.

 

I raise two points at this juncture: –

 

The difference between press and media regulation

  1. Firstly – press regulation is distinct from media regulation. Regulating the media at large would address fraudulent advertising, for instance. Media regulation is not routine. Regulating the press is quite different. For example, Singapore has the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, or the NPPA.
  1. With the MDA regulations, the definition of a “news site” was suddenly widened on the 28th of May. Contrary to the MDA’s press statement, the new regulations do not merely have the effect of placing online news sites “on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms”. Rather, the MDA’s regulations, as worded, can effectively encompass all online media. This is the case when the MDA presents a definition of a “Singapore news programme” as:

any programme… containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language … but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.

  1. We find it hard to accept such a definition. This basically encompasses everything under the sun, which one can blog about. What then is not considered news?
  1. The Government’s subsequent attempts to clarify the definitions here do not satisfy either, even if they refer instead to “computer online services” and to “commercial news websites”.
  1. One would find out that computer online services literally refers to the provision of a service – and indeed anything could be construed as a service – provided online through a computer. It can even cover internet search engine results. The net is cast so widely.
  1. What is a “commercial news website”? Yahoo! News Singapore does not charge for access to its news articles, just like community news blogs, so why is the MDA referring to Yahoo as a “commercial news website”?
  1. Moreover, one of the criteria for inclusion in the new regulations does not seem to meet the MDA’s stated intent of merely placing online news sites on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platform. Are there print newspapers that only publish one news article a week? So why is it a stated requirement that online news sites which report an average of at least one article per week, over a period of two months, on Singapore news, need to be individually licensed? Why not set a higher threshold that is more consistent with the volume of output typically expected from newspapers? I would imagine this number to at least be a few hundred articles per month. Otherwise, it looks like the regulations are targeting personal blogs.
  1. Questions abound. Once a website is licensed, would it stay licensed for its entire life, whether or not the number of visitors is reduced later?
  1. That is why I submit to the Minister that these new regulations have the potential, legally, to extend control to all media, rather than just placing online news sites on par with regulations on print newspapers, which was the stated intent.

 

Is MDA only trying to regulate Yahoo?

  1. Secondly – questions have also been raised about the curious line-up of 10 websites that will fall under these new regulations. Nine of them are the online outfits of newspapers or media outlets that already fall under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, or are under the ownership of Singapore Press Holdings or MediaCorp. Just one website is not – Yahoo! News Singapore.
  1. Yahoo has been licensed under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification of 2001, since its inception. It is an automatic licensing framework. This particular regulatory framework for the internet contains requirements for both Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Providers – only those Internet Content Providers which have connection with political parties and those dealing with the propagation, promotion and discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore, will require registration. Under the Class Licence Scheme, Internet Content Providers and Internet Service Providers are deemed automatically licensed, and have to observe and comply with the Class Licence Conditions and the Internet Code of Practice, which is issued by MDA.
  1. So if regulatory oversight for news sites like Yahoo already exists, why did the MDA have to introduce new regulations? The MDA had also gone on record to claim that there will be no change in content standards, and the intention is not to clamp down on internet freedom.
  1. Yes, we know that there are two new requirements in the new regulations – the 24-hour take-down rule, and the $50,000 performance bond. Why is there the need for these sanctions? Is it because Yahoo has not been complying with content standards?
  1. As mentioned earlier, statements indicated that the new rules aim to place online news websites on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms. The public interprets this to mean that the Government wants to control the internet in the same way that it has been controlling newspapers in Singapore since 1974 under the NPPA, in what is one of the most sophisticatedly controlled media environments in the world.
  1. So what is the purpose behind the MDA’s regulations? Is it really just to regulate the Yahoo news site, along with sites of the mainstream media outlets, and to leave personal blogs and community blogs alone, even if they meet the criteria of having a viewership of 50,000 per month?

 

So many unanswered questions

 

Test of “locally-based websites”

  1. There are still many unanswered questions. The Minister clarified that the new regulations aim to cover only locally-based websites. But we wonder how he intends to define – hopefully with acceptance from the industry – a locally-based service? Would the MDA refer to the location of the server, the computer, the operations of the company, or the type of news.
  1. In this connection, we also ask – why were the websites of CNN, BBC, Reuters and Bloomberg left out of the list? Certainly we can argue that they qualify. They are surely computer online services and we can be quite sure that they are in the business of news! Some of these firms have offices in Singapore and have been providing new services from Singapore.
  1. Otherwise the regulations seem to be so arbitrarily drawn out. Its implementation would appear to be subjected to the whims and fancy of the MDA, without any provisions for legal oversight or redress.

 

Test of computer origin

 

  1. The computer may not need to be physically based in Singapore. When we checked with an IT expert, a cloud computer powered by energy from Singapore could be also covered.
  1. Will the MDA define for us the jurisdiction for cloud computing services? Allow me to give a simple example – how does the MDA consider the case of a popular news site, operated by a Singaporean blogger, using a blogging platform powered through cloud computer systems?
  1. In this globalised and digitalised world, we are not sure if it makes sense to speak of a “locally-based website” any longer.

 

A better roadmap for reforming internet regulation

 

  1. Given that there are so many unanswered questions, some technical, others conceptual, should we not revamp and update the entire Broadcasting Act first? We believe that the Act has to be first updated to be relevant with the new internet industry and new technology before we can start to discuss these new regulations. I understand the Minister has said that the Government may tackle amendment of the Broadcasting Act some time next year. So why rush through these MDA regulations meanwhile? Would the legislation not then be untidy?
  1. The regulations also seem to have disregarded the key 2008 report of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, or AIMS, which was set up by the then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang. Among the report’s many recommendations on liberalising the regulation of the internet, it said that “a relationship built on trust among all parties is more likely to last compared to one built on a list of do’s and don’ts”. Is the Minister planning to dismiss the findings of the AIMS report?

 

The lack of rigour in our legislative process

 

  1. Why was this not brought before Parliament, such as through a ministerial statement? Just because the MDA Act empowers MDA to regulate through subsidiary legislation does not mean that it should dispense with the usual consultative processes with stakeholders. What is the rush here?
  1. The MDA regulations were dropped like a bomb on the 28th of May. I decided to file an adjournment motion on the 31st of May, but Parliament was to be on recess until July. Then on the 19th of June, the Member for Choa Chu Kang filed the first Parliamentary Question on the matter. Was the Government intending to address this matter only through PQs?

 

Withdraw the MDA regulations

 

  1. The MDA regulations are premature. They fail the test of legal rigour, not only because of its ambiguous wording – the whole regulatory regime has too wide a scope for arbitrary execution. This relates to the overarching Broadcasting Act which is outdated, but has not been amended yet.
  1. As such, the Singapore People’s Party calls on the Government to withdraw the MDA regulations of the 28th of May.

 

Or issue exemption orders for blogs immediately

 

  1. In the event that the Government refuses to withdraw the MDA regulations, what sort of legal guarantee can the Minister offer to all bloggers that they would not be targeted?
  1. In that case, we call on the Minister to immediately issue exemption orders for community news blogs like The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus, with his powers under Section 60B of the Broadcasting Act. I single out these two websites only because I believe they have a readership of over 50,000 – at least The Online Citizen has stated this publicly – but I also make this reference to any other such news blog that may fall under the criteria of the MDA regulations.
  1. The Minister signalled that government news or commentary will not be targeted under the new licensing regime for Singapore news sites, as long as they are factual and not misleading, and said that such claims are ‘far fetched’.
  1. These assurances are vague and do not constitute a legal guarantee. Bloggers speak of the MDA regulations as the proverbial Sword of Damocles. It is the fear I strike in you if I hang an axe over your neck, even though I promise you I will never kill you.
  1. So to remove any lingering doubt among the public and the business community, we challenge the Minister to issue these exemption orders, to clarify things. Section 60B of the Broadcasting Act says that the Minister is given the power to exempt any person or class of persons from all or any of the provisions of this Act or any subsidiary legislation made such as these MDA regulations.

 

Conclusion

  1. In conclusion, we are reminded of what George Washington, the first President of the United States, said: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.
  1. With unclear regulations like the MDA’s, the Government ought to clarify each and every point made above. At the moment, without the exemption orders I just mentioned, it would appear that the regulations can be applied in future on any of the most-visited blogs and websites in Singapore.
  1. Singaporeans will be all the more impoverished if the free flow information is curtailed with these MDA regulations, and by the trajectory set by them. One does not even need to believe in the constitutional right to free speech to realise how worrying the new MDA rules are, from the point of view of legal order, transparency in governance, and good business sense. With the freedom of expression suppressed, Singapore is not living up to its potential as a First World country.

 

Thank you Madam Speaker.