Blogs and websites around Singapore are staging a 24-hour blackout in protest of the Media Development Authority’s new media regulation scheme. It’s a noble sentiment. But I refuse to black out too.
Yes, I know the blackout is symbolic, a gesture of solidarity across the Internet designed to promote the cause and the protest. There is power in that. #FreeMyInternet, the blogger and activist collective campaigning against these regulations, understands that, and have initiated the blackout, a petition, publicity campaigns and the protest at Hong Lim park.
All well and good for them, but this blog is about individual thought, first and foremost. #FreeMyInternet speaks to the converted and tries to sway the undecided, in an attempt to pressure the government. I want to inform everybody. This post isn’t just for the masses. This is for the civil servants, the policymakers, the academics, the bureaucrats, and the people who want to know why.
Where #FreeMyInternet addresses this new scheme as a single immediate event, I think in terms of systems and in the long-term. And this is where I must refuse to black out, and write instead about the law.
What purpose, law?
What is the purpose of the law? A law is a rule that describes behaviour acceptable or unacceptable to a state. It tells the people what to do and how to do it, and what to not do. It tells the judiciary what to do should someone be found acting in an unacceptable way, in order to punish that behaviour and hopefully prevent it. For laws to have meaning to citizens, the state must be able to enforce them consistently.
The Singapore government prefers a security maximisation approach to lawmaking and regulations. It tries to account for every single possible act of unacceptable behaviour through laws and regulations. The People’s Action Party’s dominance of Parliament means laws can be passed at will. The MDA has demonstrated that state organs can pass wide-ranging regulation without needing to consult Parliament or the people. The government will not have a problem passing laws to maximise its perception of security.
By definition, such laws must be far-reaching, and to be far-reaching they have to be ambiguous, so that a sufficiently creative prosecutor, policeman or official can find something which which to level charges against someone who may have violated these perceptions of security. And because a law is far-reaching ambiguous, it is ultimately unenforceable.
Licensed websites under the new scheme will have 24 hours to take down objectionable content after being notified. Such content means ‘prohibited material’ in the MDA-imposed Internet Code of Conduct.
Prohibited material is material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws…
This means: sexual activity of any and every kind, detailed acts of violence and cruelty, and anything that incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious conflict. Taken to the fullest extent, Fridae, among Singapore’s most influential LGBT websites, will run afoul of this new regulation if the MDA decides it meets the requirement. Aspiring Singaporean erotica or thriller writers will have to find other ways to publish and sell their work, or otherwise go underground. So will online filmmakers.
Now let’s look at the definition of ‘news’. The MDA says a Singapore news programme is:
any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) 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 (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.
This could mean anything. Such as a Singapore-based website that reports on regional or international sports events, which, if marketed properly, would over time generate the 50000 unique visitors a month over two months the MDA set as its threshold. Or an online lifestyle magazine whose content includes Singaporean beauty salons and theater productions. Or a large volunteer-run blog on a shoestring budget that runs articles which criticise the government.
The beauty of the Internet is that you do not need to pay a lot of money to run a website, so you can focus on content. Conversely, by focusing on good quality content, you are not focusing your energies on making a profit. Which means coughing up the money for the $50K performance bond could well be out of the website’s reach, forcing the site to close down.
This leads to two things. First, the MDA’s bureaucracy will necessarily have to grow large and bloated to keep track of every single noteworthy website and determine if they are in compliance with every regulation, and monitor up-and-coming ones. Large and bloated bureaucracies are, by definition, not efficient, and therefore either lead to increased government waste and/or loss of quality (i.e. content or blogs will slip through the cracks).
Secondly, even if the MDA successfully tracks and regulates everything online, all it can do is control supply. It cannot control demand, and there is much more demand for quality alternative journalism (perceived as more objective than the mainstream media) than there is supply. Demand will generate its own supply.
Humans are infinitely creative. This means taking blogs or websites down before they cross the 50K mark, and coming back up with a slightly different address. A single group owning multiple blogs or websites which report on many different specialist subjects, effectively spreading out its readership. Singaporean content creators moving their websites and blogs (and themselves?) overseas, posting content from overseas but accepting content from locals. At the most extreme, secret websites and forums embedded in false-front websites or the Dark Internet.
This leads to three possible outcomes. Firstly, the government maintains that the regulations are only for big media companies, leading to activists and bloggers criticising the regulations indefinitely. Secondly, the MDA extends its regulations across the Internet, growing so big and bloated its actual effectiveness becomes suspect — or otherwise remaining so small it can’t keep up with an explosion in content. Thirdly, the laws themselves expand to keep up with creative subversion, until Singapore becomes as stagnant and repressive as the USSR, China or North Korea, and the intellectual elite and the dissidents flee as soon as they can.
I refuse all outcomes.
A different way
Laws based on the principle of maximising security are laughable at best and regressive at worse. The government and the bureaucrats have to abandon their security-maximisation approach. The state need only concern itself with actual harm, and let the people decide on other matters. Singapore has not seen a race or religious riot in recent history, nor is such an event likely today. Controversial content have led to outcries — but not a corresponding spike in criminal and harmful behaviour. This means today, Singaporean citizens can handle controversial content without automatically devolving into blood-baying mobs. The government needs to recognise this, and loosen up its systems of control.
Which requires clearly defined and limited laws. Instead of definitions that could stretch to literally anything, and which tend to reduce the cultural growth of a population, there should only be enough law to handle harm against people and property. It is pretty much as much law as the government can hope to realistically enforce.
The government says it wants parity of offline and online media content regulation. That’s all well and good, but instead of increasing the law, why not reduce it? Why not have a single set of consistent laws and regulations across the board? These laws would seek to restrict and punish only verifiable harm, such as hate speech, child pornography, and actual depictions of sexual violence designed to promote it. Content that hurts feelings but not causes harm (flame wars, portrayals of non-heteronomative sexuality, analysis of religious texts) will be left well alone.
Controversial content that falls in between can be discussed by a competent citizens’ group, such as independent ombudsmen. As far as possible, existing laws would be used, modified as necessary, instead of new ones to regulate only harmful behaviour. Drop the performance bond altogether; such a requirement harms only those who speak truth to power in Singapore.
All these laws and regulations will have to go through the Parliamentary process with citizen feedback. No exceptions. For such a wide-ranging scheme, you cannot trust one party, one government organ, even one group of concerned citizens, to get everything right.
The full scope of this proposal is outside the scope of this article. It’ll be covered in a future one.
But for now, I refuse to be silent, I refuse to stop access, and I refuse to think only of the immediate. If you refuse to accept the legislation like I do, and if you still believe in #FreeMyInternet, head down to Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 8 June, from 4-7pm.