Sunday, 29 April 2012

Online code of conduct? 'No thanks'

Well-known netizens see code as way for Government to control free speech online
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2012

SEVERAL well-known bloggers and owners of socio-political websites have said no to the Government's call for the Internet community to come up with a code of conduct on responsible online behaviour.

They made their stand clear in statements they posted online yesterday, a day after a closed-door discussion with government representatives.

They are Mr Andrew Loh, editor of, bloggers Ravi Philemon and Siew Kum Hong, and Mr Belmont Lay, editor of the site New Nation.

Socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) also does not support the code. It told The Straits Times that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach would be ineffective. Instead, its editors will offer their moderation policy as a best practice for other websites to adopt.

The policy, which is available on the site, discourages commenters from making postings that contain vulgarities, personal attacks, and racially or religiously offensive language, among other things.

Since last November, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim has been encouraging the Internet community to draw up a code of conduct as a means to self-regulate.

But in strongly worded posts yesterday, both Mr Loh and Mr Lay called on the Government to 'leave the Internet alone'. Mr Loh said the diversity of voices on the Internet should be promoted, adding: 'I am puzzled by this need... for everyone to act and behave like the most civilised person on the planet. Such views are divorced from reality.'

Several bloggers expressed distrust of the code, as they see it as a way for the Government to control free speech on the Internet.

Their statements on the proposed code came a day after a closed-door dialogue held on Thursday by the Institute of Policy Studies. During the session, bloggers sparred with government representatives over the issue.

Those who attended included government officials, academics, journalists and representatives from Facebook, eBay and Google. The session was conducted according to the Chatham House Rule, which means comments can be reported without attribution.

One government representative explained that in the light of recent reports of hoaxes, falsehoods and racist comments that have spread online, there is a need for a code of conduct to serve as an alternative mechanism for people to seek redress. Otherwise, they would resort to calling the police.

The representative also noted that in the absence of such a mechanism, there will be mounting public pressure on the regulator to do something more. This, he warned, could lead to a 'dependency cycle', where the public depends more and more on the Government to mediate in such situations.

But most of the bloggers remained unconvinced. One said that in 2008, a group of bloggers known as Bloggers 13 mooted a voluntary mechanism for community moderation, as part of a proposal to free up the Internet. He said that bloggers could not be expected to step forward to initiate or accept a code unless the Government steps back by loosening laws on expression.

Instead, he noted, various actions have been taken against socio-political blogs in the past 18months, such that bloggers' trust in the Government is lower now than before. These include the Government's recent use of the Political Donations Act to 'control citizen journalism', the gazetting of TOC as a political association, and defamation threats against prominent bloggers.

In the statement he posted online yesterday, Mr Philemon said the clampdown on dissenting views over the years has contributed to people going online to vent their frustration and to the dearth of civility in cyberspace.

Mr Siew suggested that the Government show its commitment to free speech online by lifting the gazetted status of TOC, of which Mr Siew is a member. He also called for 'safe harbour' laws so that websites would not be liable for defamatory comments as long as they removed them once alerted.

Target specific acts online
WITH the furore surrounding the proposed online code of conduct, the Government is in danger of losing political goodwill while not achieving any of its aims ('Online code of conduct? 'No thanks''; last Saturday).

A code of conduct is not a piece of legislation and if it lacks teeth by way of penalties, it is unenforceable. To begin with, asking the Internet community to self-regulate is a pipe dream.

The entire culture online is anti-regulation. If the Government wants to enforce a code of conduct, what penalties will be imposed if someone breaches this code? And if there are no penalties, whither the enforcement?

The Government should instead identify specific behaviour it wants to discourage and enact specific legislation to deal with it.

South Korea, which has introduced targeted cyber-bullying and cyber-defamation laws, is an example.

By introducing such specific, targeted laws instead of giving the impression it wants to regulate the entire online space, the Government can also assuage the deep mistrust among many leading bloggers that any regulation is politically motivated.

Finally, even without further legislation, many current laws are already sufficient to deal with most criminal and civil offences.

These, if taken seriously and enforced properly, will have far more teeth than a mere code of conduct.

Netizens should also be aware that they are not citizens of an imaginary online nation where different rules and laws apply.

They are first and foremost citizens of a real country - in this case Singapore - with its own sovereign laws that should be respected.

There should not and need not be one set of rules and laws online, and another set for the real world.
Calvin Cheng
Former Nominated Member of Parliament
ST Forum, 3 May 2012

Conduct unbecoming
'Freedom of speech is not a cover for uncivilised speech by the anonymous.'
MR LIN HOWARD: 'Although we cannot dictate the conduct of netizens, surely we can expect some grace and civility from them in cyberspace ('Online code of conduct? 'No thanks'; last Saturday)? While I am all for freedom of speech, I abhor the use of vulgarities by some netizens. We can be civil to those whom we disagree with, and be critical of their viewpoints - but being in cyberspace does not give one the right to use offensive language. Website editors should constantly monitor and remove such offending posts. Freedom of speech is not a cover for uncivilised speech by the anonymous. Speech as spoken by the identifiable is freedom of speech. Irresponsible netizens expressing their otherwise unprintable messages give the Government more reason to rein them in through a code of conduct as a form of control. The Internet should be left alone. Younger Singaporeans are a computer-savvy generation and the Government should respect their expectation of a free and accessible platform to air their views.'
ST Forum, 3 May 2012

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