Saturday 18 August 2012

Towards better online conduct

By Damien D. Cheong, Published The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

MINISTER for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim has once again appealed to Singapore's online community to develop an Internet code of conduct (ICoC) to help foster a more civilised cyberspace behaviour here.

He made his call at the HarmonyWorks! conference, organised by, last month.

The minister first called for the development of an ICoC or "netiquette" last year, following investigations of several Singaporeans who had posted derogatory and religiously insensitive comments online.

The Government has now also established the Media Literacy Council (MLC) to help "promote a safe, secure and civil media environment through public education". The Council is also tasked with advising the Government on media issues.

These initiatives are arguably in response to increases in: (a) "trolling", that is, the posting of inappropriate, uncivil and offensive comments online; (b) inflammatory postings about religion or ethnicity or any sensitive issue; and (c) contentious postings related to Singapore politics, the public sector and the Government.

Such posts are often highly provocative, and have the potential, as the Government believes, to provoke disquiet. This in turn may undermine social cohesion and confidence in the public sector as well as the Government.

As existing legislation cannot be effectively applied in cyberspace, with the exception perhaps of anti-defamation and national security laws, and as censorship of the Internet is not a viable option, the establishment of an ICoC and an MLC, from the Government's perspective, does have some merit.

However, many in the online community see such moves as yet another attempt to regulate the Internet. It is useful to seek a middle ground on Internet governance, where both sides appreciate the other's concerns.

The Internet has come to be regarded by many as the last bastion of free speech. So any attempt by governments or private companies to censor or regulate the Internet is often met with fierce opposition.

In Asia, where freedom of speech is not a universal shared value, cyberspace represents the only space where people can freely express themselves seemingly without fear from the authorities.

In reality, this is obviously not the case but as an ideal, cyberspace freedom resonates strongly among many, particularly in the Singaporean online community, who are determined to protect this space from any real or perceived intrusion from the Government.

To many bloggers and online users, trolling, while objectionable, is a small price to pay for freedom of expression. This group would rather avoid having online "OB markers" to regulate behaviour in cyberspace, as this would curtail freedom of expression and stifle creativity.

They would prefer a self-policing community approach to deal with errant bloggers and users. Such self-policing includes reprimanding or seeking remedial action from the offender; and ignoring the culprit(s) in the hope that they would eventually be discredited and shunned by other users.

In extreme cases of so-called "online vigilante justice", as in the recent XiaXue example, the "targets" of offensive posts may hit back at their attackers by exposing and humiliating them in cyberspace.

The first two options assume that most users are discerning, sophisticated and courageous enough to detect, reject and reprimand the offending blogger/user. But this might not always be the case. The last option - vigilante action - is controversial and may even result in the vigilante's prosecution.

The Government perforce takes a wider view of society and adopts policies that protect all citizens, not just those who are active online. From this perspective, it adopts a more pre-emptive and cautionary approach to matters that impact on security.

If inflammatory comments cannot be contained in cyberspace and have the potential to ignite problems within the wider community, then online behaviour may have to be heavily regulated.

However, the Government realises that heavy regulation is not a viable solution, nor is permitting inflammatory comments to be posted online unabated.

Its compromise solution has been to appeal to users to develop their own netiquette to guide online behaviour and educate current and future generations of Singaporeans on how best to use the Internet, with emphasis being placed on how to be discerning about what is posted on social media and other online channels.

The proposed ICoC may not be the best way to manage online behaviour since it is difficult to enforce and to ensure compliance.

Perhaps the only way to get users to abide by a code is to have the international community ratify and accept a universal Internet code of conduct. But such an outcome is virtually impossible.

At this juncture, if an ICoC is to be enforced in Singapore, it can most likely be done at the "micro level", that is, between Internet service providers and their customers. Even so, enforcement problems will persist. If the ICoC cannot be enforced, it will most likely be ignored by users.

The posting of questionable and inappropriate content will remain as long as the Internet's cloak of anonymity exists. As regulation is likely to be unsuccessful, it might be easier simply to promote the golden rule of netiquette: "Do unto others online as you would have done to you" (

For inflammatory postings, the Government has the mandate to take action against users who deliberately break the law to provoke tensions and instigate conflict. It should, of course, accord due process to the suspect(s) in the interests of transparency and accountability. The Government's credibility on and offline would be further increased if it becomes more transparent in its dealings.

The Government's aim to increase public education in social media usage through the MLC is necessary, timely and relevant.

Individuals, especially the young, should be taught how to interact and engage on social media as well as guard against unsavoury individuals and predatory behaviour. They should also be taught to be more selective and discerning, not just of information on social media but also of information on traditional media. This implies the need for the education system to encourage more critical thinking in students.

Any new policy is bound to frustrate as many as it satisfies. Therefore, a better understanding of competing perspectives and moves towards a middle ground must be sought, especially now when communication and media roles are on the cusp of change.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.

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