Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Moderating the Internet - Free speech comes with responsibility

Israel debates 'Talkback Law' to tackle online libel
By Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2011

LONDON: Israel's Parliament has begun debating a new Bill which will vastly expand the criminal responsibility of people who post injurious comments on the Internet.

Under the so-called 'Talkback Law', anyone posting harmful comments in response to articles on newspapers' websites will no longer be entitled to anony-mity and may be sued for libel.

Similar provisions are being considered by other nations. Yet Israel seems to be trail-blazing in a sensitive legal field which calls into question not only the basic rights of free speech, but also the responsibilities of established media organisations.

Most countries already make no distinction between libelling someone in print and doing so online: Both are offences which may result in criminal prosecution. Still, there is one loophole: the 'talkback' comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper websites, on which postings are almost invariably anonymous, and for which newspapers decline any responsibility.

It is this loophole which Mr Zevulun Orlev, a Member of Parliament who belongs to the Jewish Home religious party in Israel, now wishes to close. His Bill, which passed its first reading last week, will allow an injured person to sue and will force Internet service providers (ISPs) to reveal the identity of the offending author.

Mr Orlev, who claims to have been subjected to 'countless' personal attacks, admits that the Bill raises fundamental questions of freedom of speech. So he proposes a scheme which would allow for prosecution only in serious cases.

An individual hurt by a 'talkback' could ask the courts to instruct the relevant ISP to reveal information about the user who posted the comment. The ISP would be obliged to inform the user within three days, and the user, in turn, would have 20 days to state whether he agreed to his identity being revealed.

Following this procedure, the court would be asked to decide whether there was a factual basis proving the complainant's claim that his reputation was harmed or his intellectual property breached, and if so, the user's identity would be revealed.

By proposing such an elaborate procedure, Mr Orlev claims that his law protects individual liberties and 'should not deter Internet users from expressing their opinions anonymously'.

His idea has already attracted official backing. Mr Dan Hay, from the Public Council for the Protection of Privacy at Israel's Justice Ministry, supports the law, claiming that his country's 'current legislation is slower than the technology and doesn't answer all the needs'.

And other governments are thinking along similar lines.

Britain's Attorney-General Dominic Grieve reminded tweeters and other Internet users that they are not above the law.

'An online comment that breaches the strict liability rule runs the risk of running afoul of the law of contempt,' he warned.

However, the difficulties inherent in enforcing such legislation remain considerable. Identifying anonymous writers who post material on other websites is a hazardous process: Internet protocol addresses are of little help if users relied on an Internet cafe, or operated hand-held devices which are not registered.

The laws of libel also vary widely between countries, Internet providers are subject to different legal regimes and enforcing a court order across frontiers remains a highly expensive undertaking.

Newspapers and other media organisations can help tackle this particular problem in Internet governance by tightening control over their own websites.

For centuries, most newspapers have either refused to print anonymous letters altogether, or insisted that, if the name of a writer was withheld, his real identity would still be known to the newspaper's editor. That meant that only those who passed rigorous quality checks saw their letters in print.

But on newspapers' websites, such restrictions are usually ignored. Largely in order to drive more readers to their sites and provide for a greater exchange of ideas, almost everything is allowed and anonymity is now the rule.

Some talkback comments are genuinely interesting. But the majority is either banal or downright offensive, and although all newspaper websites retain the right to remove comments, few are weeded out because of the sheer manpower involved in ensuring quality control.

As Mr Douglas Bailey, a former editor of The Boston Globe daily, points out, the result is that talkback forums are contributing to the 'devaluation of journalism, blurring the truth, confusing the issues and diminishing serious discourse'.

He urges newspapers to remove these forums altogether from their websites.

India seeks to screen Internet content
Bid to ban offensive material leads to clash with Net firms, angers free speech advocates
By Nirmala Ganapathy, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2011

NEW DELHI: India, which has taken fierce pride in free speech and an aggressive media, yesterday joined the ranks of a growing number of nations that have grown wary of the Internet. It has asked firms like Google and Facebook to screen content.

The move, which was immediately condemned by free speech advocates online and elsewhere, could set the country on a collision course with the Internet companies, and may result in an unprecedented situation - an official censorship effort in the world's largest democracy.

'We'll certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that blasphemous material is not allowed (on websites). They (Internet firms) are not giving a solution, so we will see what we can do,' Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal told a press conference.

Mr Sibal said major Internet firms like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook ignored his pleas to remove 'blasphemous' and 'derogatory' comments and images deemed offensive to religious groups and political leaders on their websites. A meeting between the minister and representatives of the four firms ended inconclusively on Monday.

The stand-off between the government and the Web firms is taking place in a country that has an aggressive and outspoken media, and prides itself on freedom of speech. Unlike in China, there are few curbs on the Internet here. But the Indian government has been struggling to strike a balance between free flowing discourse on the Internet, where there is no editorial censorship, and sensitive political and religious sentiments in the country, so it is now joining the ranks of a growing number of more authoritarian nations that seek to rein in the Web.

Although there are only 100 million Internet users in India, a mere fraction of its 1.2 billion population, the number is expected to triple in the next three years.

The current dispute started in September when the Telecoms Ministry came across images and statements that were offensive to political leaders and religious groups. They included morphed pictures of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Mr Sibal said he spoke repeatedly with officials from the Internet firms in the past three months and had even asked them to come up with a voluntary mechanism to keep offensive material off their websites, but did not get any cooperation. At the meeting on Monday, they told him they could not do anything.

Companies would not be allowed to just say 'we throw up our hands, we can't do anything about this', he said. The government would come up with a policy of its own, he added.

As Mr Sibal went on the offensive, Facebook said it has policies in place to allow people to report abusive content. 'We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service.' It added that it understands the government's interest in minimising the amount of abusive content online.

India has more than 25 million Facebook users.

Google said it does take off content that is illegal or against its policies. 'But when it is legal and doesn't violate our policies, we won't remove it just because it's controversial as we believe people's differing views, so long as they are legal, should be respected and protected,' said a spokesman.

Microsoft could not be reached and Yahoo declined to comment.

Although Mr Sibal said the government did not believe in censorship or muzzling the press, he was criticised online for asking Web firms to filter content before it hit the websites. He emerged as one of India's most tweeted subjects yesterday.

'This amounts to censorship of free speech. It is impossible to moderate billions of messages being posted from sites in India. I think the government seems to have lost perspective,' said Mr Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, a website that tracks the digital and media business.

Disagreeing, Mr Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, said the government has every right to stop inflammatory material from appearing on the Internet.

Mr Sibal said the government has yet to figure out how to tackle offensive content on the Internet.

'We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,' he said.

Online rumours are worse than cocaine, says China
The Guardian, 8 Dec 2011

BEIJING - Online rumours are like drugs that damage users and harm society, the Chinese state media have claimed, as officials step up attempts to rein in the country's hugely popular microblogs.

One commentary, published by the state-run Xinhua news agency, warns that while heroin and cocaine damage health, Internet rumours are worse because they "poison the social environment and affect social order".

Another, on People's Daily Online, is titled: "Internet rumours are drugs: Please resist and stay away from them". It calls for zero tolerance, suggests they "damage people and society" as narcotics do, and accuses rumour-mongers of having ulterior motives and "kidnapping public opinion".

The intensification of attacks on "rumours" emerged as officials said they had detained several people for spreading rumours online and amid increasing controls on microblogs, which have been urging users to register their real names and deleting accounts deemed to have crossed the line.

China has 300 million registered microblog users. Microblogs have spread news of protests, exposed scandals and became the locus of public outrage at the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou in July.

Weeks later, a senior official visited the headquarters of Sina, which runs the biggest microblogging service, and urged Internet companies to prevent the spread of false and harmful information.

Mr Charles Chao, chief executive of Sina, said subsequently that it was establishing more mechanisms to quash rumours.

Many Internet users fear the drive against "rumours" will also be used to suppress sensitive stories and justified criticism of officials.Mr Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based Internet analyst, said in a blog: "The language in these articles has echoes of campaigns and crackdowns from an earlier era.

"The comparisons to drugs and drug dealing, sometimes a capital offence in China, may be a sign of an impending harsh crackdown on those who spread Internet rumours."

On Sunday, the state information office announced that it had detained several people for inventing a rumour that HIV positive people and Aids patients were lacing restaurant food with their blood.

"Illegal spreading of false information online violates Internet order and harms the public interest," the head of the office's bureau of network news told the Global Times newspaper.

A judge said people could be fined about 500 yuan (S$100.50) for spreading rumours, while those deliberately fabricating or disseminating false and harmful information faced up to five years in jail.

Sina has set up a round-the-clock "rumour control" team and has begun issuing warnings to users judged to have crossed the line and suspending and deleting accounts.

It is trying to encourage people to register in their real names by adding a "medal of honour" for users who provide details for police checks.

Behaving better online
Code of Internet conduct improves trust and encourages discernment
By Ang Peng Hwa, Published in The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2011

A CODE of conduct is needed for Internet content posted by Singaporeans - not to censor or filter content, but to calm an atmosphere turning hysterical.

In one week, three people have posted offensive content on the Internet. The first was a young People's Action Party member who captioned a photograph with offensive text and has since resigned from the party; the second posted an offensive photo on Facebook; and the third posted an offensive image he said was intended to be a warning. The police are investigating all three.

On Nov 26, Straits Times writer Salim Osman ('Gap in multiracial message') did not think an apology for such offensive content was enough: 'Only legal prosecution under a tough Sedition Act and mandatory counselling for the offenders would serve as a deterrent against racist postings.'

Mr Salim did not distinguish among the three even though one of them claimed to have been a whistleblower - an important fact, assuming it to be true.

Then came the ST editorial of Dec 2 ('Hate speech is not free speech'): 'The problem is that not every offensive posting might be grave enough to attract legal penalties, but could still be serious enough to harm, however imperceptibly, the climate of trust among the races and religions.'

If the harm is imperceptible, how can one say there was harm? Is there harm if no one can perceive it?

When facts are not clearly ascertained, and laws are proposed to address the imperceptible, I think it is time to sit down and rethink the issue. Which is why I think the code for online conduct should be drafted now.

As I envisage it, the code would be a set of rules administered by the Media Development Authority (MDA) as content regulator. It, instead of the police, would handle complaints concerning hate speech and other offensive content. In line with the light-touch approach to Internet content regulation, the penalties should be relatively light: warnings and perhaps community service. Only in recalcitrant cases should the typical legal punishment of fines and jail be used.

The MDA has a system of using public inputs on its various committees and appeal panels, and a similar system should be used to draw up the rules and enforce them.

What should the code consider?

To begin with, the proposed code of conduct needs to clarify 'hate speech'. If the potential harm to the climate of trust is imperceptible, should the individual who promulgated it be punished? Should an insult be enough to trigger action against the person who delivered it?

The code should minimise vagueness and uncertainty about what is outlawed. The drafters should clarify and minimise the use of out-of-bounds markers.

If interpretation is needed, there should be an opportunity for a content provider to obtain clearance from the regulator as to whether certain content would fall outside its rules.

One of the cases involved Facebook. This is a private company with a privacy policy of 6,911 words. Facebook has changed its policy so what used to be private information has become public information. Users are alerted about these changes and are expected to know the outcome. Should a user who had offensive content that used to be private but is now publicly posted be held liable?

A code is needed because some current laws have the unintended effect of discouraging moderation.

The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media in Society (Aims), of which I was a member of the working group, had recommended an overhaul of the law regarding intermediaries. The law currently exempts network providers such as SingTel, StarHub and M1 from liability for illegal content flowing through their pipes. But it does not exempt websites that host content posted by users.

The degree of liability then falls back to common sense and common law: The more one knows, the more one is culp-able. Given this, it is better for content hosts to feign ignorance of the content. Trying to do something about it would indicate knowledge of the offensive content and increase liability.

The code should also encourage and not punish whistleblowing.

As the person who claimed to be a whistleblower has discovered, he is suspected of posting the material even though he claims he was out to warn others. Press reports say that the post by the young PAP member was found by one Noor Firdaus, who is presumably a Malay-Muslim. Mr Firdaus posted the offensive photo in several locations, including Facebook, and was commended for it. But the third person, a Chinese, who also claimed to be whistleblowing, is being investigated.

There must be a distinction between advocating and reporting offensive content. The intent is important. And intent should not be judged based on the person's race and religion. It would be a sad day in Singapore if it is assumed that any non-Muslim commenting on Islam or any non-Christian commenting on Christianity must be up to no good.

The code should also specify the punishment. I recommend a graduated response beginning with a warning, perhaps counselling, before escalating to prosecution.

The Internet also includes rational Singaporeans, who should be encouraged to exercise discernment. My hope is that when the law comes in, the community at large does not 'tune out', as tends to happen in Singapore. If Singaporeans at large do not exercise discernment - because the police or the ministry does it for them - that will truly be the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope towards racial and religious strife.

The writer is director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, Nanyang Technological University, and president of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society.

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