Thursday 6 June 2013

Govt will maintain light touch on Internet, says Yaacob

But regulation needed to ensure responsible online behaviour: Minister
By Tessa Wong And Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 5 Jun 2013

THE Government's approach to regulating the Internet with a "light touch" remains despite a new move to license online news sites, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

But the light touch does not mean the Internet and online behaviour are not regulated, he told reporters during a discussion as he addressed concerns that the rules were a first step towards tighter control of the Internet.

"Like our regulations in the physical world, our regulations for online space are meant to ensure that people are responsible for their actions, which have real-world consequences," he said at the discussion at his ministry.

"There are actions that should not be condoned, whether online or offline. For example, someone who causes alarm to the public through false information should not get immunity simply because he operates online. Neither should someone who incites racial or religious hatred," he said.

The new licensing rules were announced last week and took effect on Saturday.

Ten sites, which put out Singapore news regularly, each with at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month, will be licensed and have to put up a $50,000 performance bond.

The rules drew criticism, especially from the online community, who felt they were aimed at restricting online discourse.

A group calling itself "Free My Internet" said yesterday that the public should have been consulted before the changes were made. It is planning an online "blackout" of some sites tomorrow and a gathering at Speakers' Corner on Saturday to protest against the ruling.

Asked if the new rules could have been communicated better, Dr Yaacob said perhaps people could have been given more time to digest the changes.

Still, he maintained that the changes were not "a fundamental shift" but merely a "tweak".

He said they were not triggered by any particular online incident or targeted at any website. Rather, they were driven by what he described as the "brutal forces" of media convergence brought about by technological change.

He noted that more Singaporeans now get their news and current affairs information online, and Internet content is published and spread swiftly.

"This makes it more important to ensure that online news sites with significant reach, and hence impact on Singaporeans, do not carry prohibited content and if they do, that they take down such content as soon as possible."

The new licensing scheme is aimed at bringing regulatory parity to traditional and online news platforms.

Dr Yaacob pointed out that although online sites have come under a class licence scheme since 1996, the Media Development Authority (MDA) has been restrained in asking for objectionable content to be removed.

It issued a take-down notice once for religiously offensive content last year. Another 23 instances over the years concerned other prohibited content such as pornographic material and advertisements soliciting for sex or sex chats, and most followed public complaints.

"There has not been an instance where the MDA has directed sites to take down content that is critical of the Government or any minister," he said.

Dr Yaacob said the new rules are not as onerous as they have been made out to be by critics. "Nowhere do the guidelines state that news sites cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention to mislead the public," he said.

The definition of "news" for this law was also not specially drafted but adapted from existing legislation. The content standards were also the same as those under the class licence scheme and the Internet Code of Practice.

So, there was "no logic" in arguments that licensed sites would be limited in what they do.

"There is even less logic in the argument that sites which are still class licensed will limit public discourse," he added.

It would be best for people to see if activists are indeed limited in what they can say after the licences are issued, he said.

"I expect that the sites will continue to operate as before. I hope that the activists who are today making this far-fetched claim will be honest enough to admit it when the time comes," he said.

Q&A: New rules driven by changes in technology

MINISTER for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday responded to media queries on the new licensing framework for news websites. Below are some of his replies.

Is the introduction of the new licensing framework triggered by an online incident or targeted at any particular news site?

A: No. It is driven by technological changes leading to media convergence, and the fact that more and more Singaporeans access news and current affairs over the Internet.

Furthermore, Internet content can be published and disseminated very quickly. This makes it more important to ensure that online news sites with a significant reach (and hence, impact on Singaporeans) do not carry prohibited content and if they do, that they take down such content as soon as possible.

Can traditional media rules be realistically enforced online? What happens if a site refuses to be licensed, goes into different guises and is sited overseas?

A: There are regulatory levers to deal with those who circumvent licensing and/or breach licence conditions, but we will deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

Why didn't the Government go through public consultation before implementing the new framework? Some have linked the strong negative reaction to this lack of consultation and seemingly hurried pace of lawmaking.

A: The change is not a fundamental shift in policy approach, which remains "light touch". It is a refinement of the Class Licensing scheme, which was itself introduced via subsidiary legislation in 1996. There is no change in content standards.

Where the issue is a new policy direction, such as the possibility of regulating some overseas broadcasters who target the Singapore market, the Government has not rushed to implement it but has announced the intention to look into the idea, and will, in due course, consult the public before formulating its proposals.

If the argument is that the rules on content standards already exist, why the need to impose this additional layer of individual licensing, when you can go after perpetrators of bad taste, racist or sexually explicit content through other rules?

A: An individual licence places a stronger onus on the individual licensee operating that website to be aware of its legal obligations, and to report responsibly. This is necessary for sites with a significant reach and hence, high impact on Singaporeans which produce news content, especially since their content is relied upon by others to make informed decisions, or to form judgments on matters of public interest.

Going by the reactions of some Internet content providers, it would appear that not all of them are fully aware of the content standards in the class licence. Otherwise, why would they argue that they will be censored?

This is not a major problem if they are not producing news content. But it should be a concern if, for something as important as news, they are not even aware what the baseline content standards are.

Is there a subsequent tranche of sites that will be licensed? Is there a specific watch list that the Media Development Authority (MDA) is monitoring?

A: There is no subsequent tranche of sites that have been identified for future licensing.

However, now that the new framework is in place, as and when the MDA makes a determination that a new site has met the criteria and needs to be individually licensed, it will notify them.

There are now all kinds of criticism levelled at the new licensing regime. How are you going to manage the "noise"?

A: Singaporeans have a right to their views and opinions. While attention has focused on the vocal voices criticising the licensing framework for online news sites, let us not forget that there are quarters that are supportive of the move. What we ask is that Singaporeans also hear us out on the policy objectives and rationale.

S'pore 'not alone' in tweaking media laws
NZ, Britain also reviewing regulation of new and old media, says Yaacob
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 5 Jun 2013

SINGAPORE is not the only country tweaking the laws governing traditional and online media, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

New Zealand and Britain are also reviewing their regulatory approaches and frameworks for new and old media.

His remarks yesterday follow concerns that the Government's move - requiring prominent local news sites to get licences - amounts to tighter regulation.

He noted that New Zealand's Law Commission recently called for an independent watchdog to oversee broadcast, print and online news. It will have the power to censure and ask for material to be removed from a website as well as for a published apology.

The move, announced in the country's Parliament in March, was prompted by disparities in the frameworks applying to different news sources.

Dr Yaacob said: "The bottom line is that (the New Zealanders) now see that even the media can operate contrary to the public interest, and they need a regulator to ensure that this does not happen.

"They have also recognised the need for any regulator to oversee both traditional and online media."

The minister was speaking during a discussion with reporters at his ministry that followed last week's announcement by the Media Development Authority (MDA) that news sites which report on Singapore regularly and have significant reach will be individually licensed.

MDA's reason for it is to align the frameworks governing traditional and online media.

Previously, most of these sites automatically came under a class licence.

But the new scheme sets out a timeframe of 24 hours within which they must remove prohibited content after being told to do so.

Still, MDA's new move has led some to ask if it could not have considered or taken an alternative route: Deregulate mainstream media and do away with individual licensing altogether.

In response, Dr Yaacob pointed to New Zealand and said: "The 'alternative' of deregulating mainstream media is not much of a real alternative.

"New Zealand has problems with their self-regulatory system (for traditional media). They are, in fact, considering how to regulate their press."

In Britain, the authorities are planning a royal charter to establish an independent press regulator, with powers to demand prominent corrections and apologies from news publishers and impose monetary fines.

Singapore's traditional media like newspapers are individually licensed, and Hong Kong and Malaysia have similar arrangements too, noted Dr Yaacob.

The rationale for licensing mainstream media here is to ensure they report responsibly and do not carry content which, for instance, offends good taste, he said.

"This rationale remains valid even with the emergence of new media, and in fact extends equally to new media platforms," he added.

New media observer Carol Soon at the Institute of Policy Studies, when asked to comment on the ways that different countries are trying to regulate the Internet, noted that there were differences between the situation in New Zealand and Singapore.

"There, the regulatory body is independent, not established by legislation, and membership is voluntary. The move is perceived as providing the means for people to seek recourse, and not so much of censorship," she said.

Dr Soon also said a more "sustainable" way of regulation is for the Government to "step in when there is an undeniable need to do so", such as when there is a direct threat to public order.

'Level playing field' for local, foreign broadcasters
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 5 Jun 2013

A PLANNED change to the Broadcasting Act is to ensure a "level playing field" for both local and foreign broadcasters and cover overseas broadcasters "which are specifically targeting Singaporeans", Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

These would include online news sites which may not be operating here, but regularly report on Singapore news and target a Singapore audience, he said yesterday.

However, the Government does not intend to license overseas sites which report on Singapore news only incidentally and from time to time.

Elaborating, Dr Yaacob said: "We do not intend to license overseas news sites who may report on Singapore news incidentally from time to time but which, by the focus they give to Singapore news vis-a-vis news from other countries or by the nature of their reporting, are clearly not specifically targeted at Singaporeans."

So sites like, and the website for BBC News Asia in their current form will not fall within the Government's licensing framework, he made clear yesterday.

Yahoo Singapore is, however, covered by the Government's licensing framework, and is one of 10 websites that now need to apply for an individual licence. That is because its coverage and reporting are "clearly targeted at Singaporeans".

Dr Yaacob also made the point that "as a matter of principle, there is no good reason why we should allow overseas broadcasters who are in the same business as our local broadcasters to be regulated differently".

The Government has also always maintained that "foreign media must not engage in Singapore's domestic politics, and that remains so for both traditional and new media", he added.

Asked how exactly a Singapore law could be enforced on a website if it is located in a different jurisdiction, he acknowledged that there are "some challenges" and his ministry is currently evaluating a variety of options.

Dr Yaacob's clarifications come about a week after he announced the Government's plan to amend the Broadcasting Act.

People should continue airing views online: Tan Chuan-Jin
By Sharon See, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Jun 2013

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin on Tuesday said people should continue airing their views and not be concerned about the new licensing regime for online news sites and its effect on online content.

Mr Tan was on Channel NewsAsia's Talking Point to discuss the Media Development Authority's (MDA) licensing regime for online news.

He replaced MDA's CEO Koh Lin-Net, who was originally slated to be on the show.

"(There are) quite a lot of interesting theories online about why I'm here (on the show). I would say that when we pass regulations, policies, where there is quite a lot of public interest, I think it is important for the public office holders to front it," said Mr Tan.

Mr Tan said there is clearly a lot of interest in MDA's new licensing regime for online news.

"I would say that it is not just really a debate and discussion about the regulation itself. I think it is really about the whole public engagement space where people do feel that whether is that space being constrained, is it being threatened? I think it is useful perhaps to also have a non-MCI (Ministry of Communications and Information) perspective about how we look at it, and how we ought to operate - not just government and people, but as a society."

Mr Tan said the regulations are already in existence for traditional print media but he said many of these have moved to the online space where regulations have not been put in place.

He explained: "The regulations deal with news sites. It doesn't encompass blogs but would some blogs become news sites, and if they evolve to become news sites, I think that is something that we need to look at. As a broad principle, it is meant to cover those reporting news. Individual blogs, commentaries – that remains open."

Yahoo S'pore to comply with new licence rules
This will help its staff gain full govt accreditation, access to more events
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2013

YAHOO Singapore indicated yesterday that it will comply with a controversial licensing framework for online news sites, though it does not deem the new rules necessary.

In a note put up on its site, country manager and Yahoo South-east Asia managing editor Alan Soon said that agreeing to be licensed would pave the way for his staff to gain full government accreditation and access to more events.

Unlike reporters from mainstream media outlets, those from Yahoo are not issued media passes by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), do not receive official press statements and are not invited to government press conferences.

Yahoo is the only site, out of the list of 10 that have been identified for licensing so far, that is not run by a traditional media outlet.

Of the rest, seven are owned by Singapore Press Holdings, including the news site for The Straits Times, and two by MediaCorp.

Asked if a bargain had been struck and if Yahoo will be accredited in return for agreeing to be licensed, an MCI spokesman would say only that accreditation approval is based on an application's merits and on a case-by-case basis.

The licensing framework specifies a 24-hour timeframe within which holders must remove prohibited content or readers' comments relating to issues such as pornography or hate speech, when notified to do so.

They must also post a $50,000 performance bond, pegged to that required for niche television broadcasters.

Mr Soon said that the licensing restrictions around hate speech were in line with Yahoo's views, citing a campaign that the portal launched last year to promote a message of tolerance.

He acknowledged that while the Web offers an opportunity for open and constructive debate, discussions can "easily spiral into a downward circle of anger and hatred, often targeting people of specific nationalities, religions and sexual preferences".

Still, it was important that regulations remain meaningful and do not become a tool that restricts freedom of expression and genuine debate, he said.

The Government has said that the ruling is to give parity to the frameworks governing traditional and online news sources, and ensure that people are accountable for their actions online as they are in the physical world.

Before the ruling went into effect last Saturday, Yahoo fell under an automatic class licence scheme applying to most sites.

Mr Soon said it was thus already subject to the Internet Code of Practice, which forbids the broadcast of content that goes against public morality or the public interest.

Further regulation was redundant, he said.

"And as the past few days have shown, (the new licence) creates confusion and unsettles both users as well as the media industry that Singapore has tried so hard to cultivate," he said.

He said the new ruling is no different from a global trend towards "greater regulatory scrutiny of the Internet as governments try to extract accountability from Internet users and website operators".

But he stressed that Yahoo is committed to protecting and promoting free expression.

He said: "We live in a world where millions of people benefit from open discussions, lively commentary and a robust exchange of ideas, all thanks to the Internet. We believe that societies thrive when people are free to express themselves."

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