Different codes for different folks

Once again, the government is calling for an online code of conduct. Apparently, the state has yet to learn that many bloggers, activists and Internet users are opposed to such an idea. Or that having a code is impractical.

Different people have different values. Different people have different priorities. I favour reason, evidence and deep thought. I can point to other, more famous, bloggers who prefer emotional discourse. I’m in the business of understanding how things work. Others prefer to promote personal causes and criticise all others. I blog about writing and politics, which is much different from bloggers who write about food, movies, or their personal lives. Having a code of conduct assumes there is some commonality of values and interests across the Internet.

Yaacob Ibrahim may say that the Code of Conduct is for everyone on the Internet, but the CoC is aimed largely at political bloggers. The government uses words like ‘honest, constructive, rational discussion’ to signal how it would like people to talk about politics. ‘When something goes wrong’ in the Singaporean Internet space, it is almost always about the grim triad of politics, race, or religion — matters political bloggers talk about. The example Yaacob uses is plainly lifted from online discussions that allege corruption in the government. The people who will be most affected by the CoC are the political bloggers, because they would have to watch themselves and each other much more closely, and in some cases outright change the way they write to meet the needs of the CoC.

The state has to know this. But it insists that the CoC is for the good of the Internet, when it’s really to prompt the political blogging community to self-regulate.  The government isn’t upfront about this.

But then, according to its personal code of conduct, the government may not see a need to talk about it anyway.

Which, of course, grates against the values of political bloggers.

Yaacob does make the point that people will clamour for government intervention when ‘something goes wrong’. What he isn’t articulating is that people will still call for government intervention even if there’s a CoC in place. The CoC Yaacob calls for has exactly zero legal authority, as he does not wish to pass laws to regulate the Internet. That means people can still break the code at will, and the most other people can do is criticise them for doing so. Such an approach won’t please everybody. There will be people who will call for offensive speech to be silenced, and they will want the government to silence offensive speech. To some people, it may not matter that controversial speech does not violate a CoC; they will still call for government intervention. The Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad did not violate Danish laws or cultural norms, but it sparked global protests and calls for international government intervention to limit the spread of such cartoons.

Furthermore, in more severe cases, such as incite of violence, the state will have to step in anyway. Bottom-up initiatives like the CoC do not, as a rule, have any legal authority or use of the powers of the state. Even if a CoC does include some kind of council to pass judgment on controversial speech, should someone’s speech be deemed guilty of violating the common good, that council cannot do anything. Not unless it is a de facto branch of the state — which the government may actually want, should a CoC come to pass. I doubt that having a CoC will reduce the number of such cases — not that they are common to begin with — and should they arise, it becomes a matter for the government.

Yaacob also makes the unarticulated assumption that the government has to intervene anyway. As I said last year, the only time the government has to step in is if there’s a potential for harm. Not hurt feelings. In Singapore, there have been many more cases of hurt feelings than harm caused by controversial speech in recent history. In every such case, people have called on the government to Do Something, which usually means police investigations. The government prides itself on being non-populist, on doing The Right Thing instead of bowing to the whims of the people. If it insists on retaining this stance, all it has to do is respond simply to cases that cause harm. This will be in line with its code of conduct, make an Internet CoC unnecessary, and save time and resources.

There is worth in having ‘rational, constructive’ discussions, but that’s not what everybody wants. Some people just want to blow off steam. Others aren’t even interested in the discussion. Imposing this requirement on the Internet does not respect the wishes of the people. If the government really wants ‘rational’ and ‘constructive’ discussions, it has several options: engaging people who have demonstrated interest in such discussions, creating a space for such a discussion, and supporting or endorsing people who hold the same values of engagement as the government. This is how people use the Internet: in the absence of a higher regulatory authority, people create spaces for themselves and engage those with similar or different values. The Internet is deliberately anarchic, and no government has complete authority over it. The approach I’ve described would make the government much more welcome on the Internet, while still advancing the government’s objectives.

The government needs to stop seeing itself as an arbiter of values, or even the principal moral influence, in Singapore’s Internet spaces. This mindset has no relevance on the Internet. The government may call for a bottom-up approach to the CoC, but even this will be seen as yet another attempt to impose greater control on the Internet. The government just needs to step back and let the people sort things out themselves, stepping in only when there is potential for harm. If the government insists on its honest, rational, constructive discussion, it should participate in online spaces like everybody else. If the government wants respect on the Internet, it has to earn it.