Sunday 2 June 2013

MDA: Bloggers not affected by new licensing framework for online news sites reporting on Singapore

Individuals publishing views on current affairs do not need a licence
By Leonard Lim And Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 1 Jun 2013

THE Media Development Authority (MDA) yesterday said it wanted to "clear the air" on new online regulations, saying individuals writing on blogs would not be required to get a licence.

In a Facebook post a day before the regulations kick in, it elaborated on what it considers news sites.

"The licensing framework applies only to sites that focus on reporting Singapore news and are notified by MDA that they meet the licensing criteria. An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting," the media regulator said. Even then, it stressed that content standards for these sites had not changed.

On Tuesday, MDA announced rules that compel a news site to apply for an individual licence if it meets two criteria: an average of at least one article per week on Singapore's news and current affairs over a period of two months, and at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months.

These sites will be required to post a $50,000 performance bond pegged to that required for niche TV broadcasters.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, writing on Facebook too, said yesterday that popular traditional and online news providers need to uphold common standards in their news reporting.

He said he understood the initial mixed reactions to the rule, but expressed confidence that the "worries of so-called restrictions on Internet space will prove to be unfounded in time to come".

MDA also stressed the rules are "not an attempt to influence the editorial slant of news sites". Rather, they are focused on ensuring that sites are free from content that threatens Singapore's social fabric and national interests. This includes content that incites racial or religious hatred, misleads and causes mass panic, or advocates or promotes violence.

The statement comes a day after a group of prominent netizens issued a statement opposing the rules, and saying that the $50,000 would "potentially be beyond the means of volunteer run and personal blogging platforms".

MDA clarified that the bond does not necessarily mean cash upfront and it was ready to discuss the conditions with any licensee: "Licensees can consider options such as banker's guarantee or insurance."

It added that it would step in only when complaints were brought to its attention, and the content was assessed to have breached guidelines and merited action. MDA said it had issued only one take-down notice in the past two years.

The 10 sites due to be licensed are expected to receive official notification soon, after which there will be a few weeks for clarifications between them and MDA. A Yahoo spokesman yesterday declined to comment, saying it would wait until it received the licence conditions.

Meanwhile, Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam said she has filed an adjournment motion to speak on the licensing framework at the next Parliament sitting in July, pending the confirmation of the Parliament Secretariat.

Licence to a more civil online discourse

Ten news sites that provide regular reports on Singapore and have significant reach will need individual licences from today, as regulators bid to align regulations for online news platforms with those for print and broadcast. The Media Development Authority stressed that the move, announced on Tuesday, was not to clamp down on Internet freedom. But many in the online fraternity interpreted it as a way to rein them in. The new licence requires holders to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified. This could be something that goes against good taste, offends religious sensitivities, or relates to vice. Communications professor and director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre Ang Peng Hwa and Siew Kum Hong, a former Nominated MP and regular online commentator, speak to Leonard Lim and Tessa Wong.
The Straits Times, 1 Jun 2013


What do you make of the new licensing framework, and its impact on the media landscape in Singapore?

It's a bold step in the sense that other people haven't done it, but small in that it's being confined to news sites and commercial players.

It seems targeted at intentional news providers with a sizeable audience, and I do not think the rules would have a big impact on them. These professional news providers know what the prohibited content is and what the rules are.

But one problem might be in readers' comments.

It adds to cost as you need somebody on standby, to respond to the MDA's request to take down the content.

The ruling will be more problematic for amateur sites, and maybe civil society groups, with less resources. The impact would be to constrain the size of the media market, and benefit the incumbents.

Start-ups have to worry about growing - if you reach a sizeable market, you suddenly have this additional cost.

It may not have a chilling effect on the content of news providers, but on media start-ups.

Do you see the regulations as having an impact on online discourse and readers' comments?

Readers' comments, especially anonymous ones, are a global problem. They can be toxic.

If we were to give it more time, the civility will probably increase. But I think in Singapore, we're not willing to be so patient. For that reason, some have accused us of being a nanny state.

I see the rule as an effort to make online discourse more civil, but the Ministry of Communications and Information doesn't come out to say that. If they do, many would agree with the intent.

The benefit of being civil online is you can also advertise seriously. It becomes commercially viable and win-win.

The site provider gets to make some revenue, readers come on, and the advertiser loves it as people hang out there.

The rules, says MDA, are to give parity to the frameworks governing traditional news media and Internet news sites. What is your view?

Not many countries are putting offline rules into the online regime.

It is more likely the new media will change the old media rules but in Singapore, we are being "conservative" and applying old media rules to the new media.

There are some concerns there, like I said, potential stifling of new media innovations.

Some see the new regulation as instituting more responsibility on news sites, but others label it as censorship. What's your take on the issue?

It depends partly on how you define censorship.

To us, censorship is third-party intervention between a willing sender and willing receiver.

If people are not willing to receive the content, you can't say it's censorship.

Hate speech, for example, should be removed, you might argue it's not censorship.

Censorship comes in if comments are made and for some reason deleted and people feel it's a valid comment.

Right now the new rules don't seem like censorship as they're removing "prohibited content" to do with public order issues.

The Government has also said it will introduce legislation next year to give it powers to enforce this licensing regulation on overseas-based sites. Is this tenable?

If this legislation is for news sites, it is tenable. But it's not in line with best practices. It wouldn't be good for business, education and research.

Blocking news sites will be a loss to Singapore.


What do you make of the new licensing framework that the Media Development Authority announced this week, and its impact on the media landscape?

This is a significant retreat from the "light touch" approach to Internet censorship that the Singapore Government has espoused since the late 1990s.

Not only was Singapore the first and only country in the world to regulate a socio-political community blog in the same way it regulates political parties (that is, gazetting The Online Citizen as a "political association"), it is now also probably the first and only democratic country in the world to require websites, that meet certain requirements, to post a significant monetary bond before they can continue publishing.

Do you see the new regulations as having an impact on online discourse and readers' comments?

Yes, but not in the way the regulators would have intended. It will make people more cynical about the PAP Government. As for readers' comments, this regulation will probably have minimal effect on their behaviour.

Other factors - such as anonymity or the lack thereof - will continue to have a much greater effect on what comments get posted.

The rules, says the MDA, are to give parity to the frameworks governing traditional news media and Internet news sites. What is your view?

In the first place, these measures do not establish regulatory parity. For example, the MDA can order an online news site to remove content within 24 hours, otherwise it may lose its $50,000 bond. But there is no equivalent for newspapers - if The Straits Times publishes an article prohibited under MDA guidelines, it is not obligated to recall all unsold copies within 24 hours. And while all newspapers are presumably subject to the same licensing conditions, select Internet sites are now subject to discriminatory treatment.

But even if there should be regulatory parity, why should we achieve that by reducing the freedom on the Internet? Why can't we liberalise the mainstream media?

Some see the new regulation as instituting more responsibility on news sites but others label it as censorship. What's your take on the issue?

I have no doubt that this is an attempt to establish a mechanism where the Government can censor the Internet if it wants to, similar to how it can censor offline media. The power to compel content removal is simply the power to censor outright. If the intent was to ensure responsible and accurate reporting, which is the purported reason for regulating traditional media, then surely the MDA should have chosen to include the power to order the publication of an update or correction as well. But this does not seem to be the case, at least based on the MDA's own announcement.

The Government has also said it will introduce legislation to give it powers to enforce this licensing regulation on overseas-based sites. Is this tenable?

Very untenable in reality. China has shown that the only way to enforce local laws against overseas-based sites with any success is to block them. Singapore, as an open economy built on a free flow of information, cannot afford to implement a Great Firewall - it will destroy our economy.

So if the Government does introduce such legislation, the most it can do is to require international outlets with some small local operations (for example, BBC) to register as well if they want to continue with their local operations. They will simply shut down their local operations or reduce their coverage of Singapore - both are undesirable outcomes.

But this legislation will be useless against sites like Sammyboy, which have no visible local presence and simply don't care anyway.

Netizens to protest against MDA rule
By Tessa Wong, The Sunday Times, 2 Jun 2013

Several sociopolitical websites and bloggers will hold a protest both online and offline this week against the new licensing scheme that came into effect yesterday.

The group of netizens - which calls itself Free My Internet - circulated a statement online yesterday calling for people to join them at a rally at Speakers' Corner this Saturday, as well as for netizens to shut down their blogs and websites for 24 hours this Thursday.

The statement had 34 signatories, including the editors of sites such as The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus and Public House; prominent bloggers and Mr Gilbert Goh, the man who organised the recent protests at Hong Lim Park against the White Paper on Population.

Earlier last week, the Media Development Authority (MDA) introduced a new licensing framework for news websites.

Under the new rules, sites which report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months, and reach at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months, must apply for an individual licence.

Previously, all websites were automatically licensed under a class licensing scheme.

MDA has said that the rules do not alter current content standards and are designed to give parity to regulations covering mainstream and online media.

The rules impose a 24-hour deadline for websites owners to take down offensive content and requires licensees to put up a $50,000 performance bond. MDA has also clarified that individuals writing blogs do not require a licence.

The rules have sparked an angry reaction from netizens who see the move as a bid by the Government to clamp down on expression online.

In their statement yesterday, they said: "We encourage all Singaporeans who are concerned about our future and our ability to participate in everyday online activities and discussions, and to seek out alternative news and analysis, to take a strong stand against the licensing regime which can impede on your independence."

The Free My Internet group also launched an online petition for the immediate withdrawal of the licensing scheme. It calls on the Ministry of Communication and Information to undertake "a complete review of all media regulation in Singapore, with the aim of ensuring that the constitutional rights of Singaporeans are not violated".

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