Saturday 6 July 2013

No major changes likely for online licensing rules

MDA working out fine print of licence while taking in feedback from media firms
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2013

THE three media companies that have come under the new online regulatory framework are giving feedback on the terms of the licence, but there will likely be no substantive change to the thrust of the rules, said a government official yesterday.

Mr Aubeck Kam, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Communications and Information, told reporters that talks are ongoing with the Media Development Authority.

He was speaking to the media after a forum that discussed the new licensing regime for news websites. The MDA comes under his ministry.

At the forum, he explained that the regulations that came into force on June 1 simply enabled MDA to create the framework.

Now, it is engaged in working out the fine print of the licence while considering the feedback from the media companies.

Ten websites have been told to apply for individual licences. They are owned by three media companies: Singapore Press Holdings, Yahoo and MediaCorp. Each site has to put up a $50,000 performance bond, and must take down prohibited content within 24 hours when ordered by the Government.

About 60 IT professionals, bloggers and students attended the two-hour forum, organised by the Singapore Computer Society and the Internet Society Singapore Chapter.

Mr Kam later told reporters the feedback from the three companies has been about the clarity of the regulations, "with the view of improving accuracy of the conditions, how it's worded. The key parameters are not major points of contention".

Asked if this meant the MDA will not likely change any part of the regulations, he said: "The substance of the parameters, these are not the issues the companies have reflected they are uncomfortable with."

His remarks follow requests for changes from a coalition of Internet and technology companies, including Yahoo.

The group wants the Government to replace the 24-hour requirement with a less specific timeframe, as well as not to hold websites liable for content posted by other users.

Will the MDA take their requests in into account in drafting the licence?

Mr Kam replied: "It (the licence) would have clarified their concerns, and we believe the clarifications once conveyed will be satisfactory to address the concerns of the companies."

On being liable for others' posts, he said the rules are about content that is produced by the news sites themselves. "There is no issue about third-party content," he added.

As for the 24-hour requirement, Mr Kam disclosed that when the Government asked Google to take down the Innocence Of Muslims video last year, it had informed the company "quite a few days" earlier about its concerns before it issued a formal notice to the company to do so.

On whether this would be the standard practice in future for licensed news sites, Mr Kam said it would depend on the nature of the offensive content.

"If it's something that's already spreading alarm and causing people to react in a very negative or adverse way, or causing harm, then obviously we will have to work quickly," he said.

If a licensee refuses to take down content, it may not necessarily result in an immediate suspension of its, he added.

He said that in other categories of licences, "the number of times a Singapore government agency has gone straight to suspend the licence, it's very rare... it's a last resort".

He added: "But it also depends on the situation at hand, how serious it is."

Yahoo S'pore seeks media accreditation
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2013

YAHOO Singapore has applied for media accreditation from the Government, which is now looking at its request, said Ministry of Communications and Information Permanent Secretary Aubeck Kam.

"Yahoo has put forward a request to the government (communications) department for it to be accredited... That is something which the government departments are looking at and assessing," he said at a forum last night.

Accreditation will mean Yahoo Singapore will receive official press statements and be invited to government press conferences. Yahoo is the only news website of the 10 identified by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for its new licensing scheme which is not run by a traditional media outlet.

However, Yahoo is also part of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association that wrote a strongly worded letter to the ministry last month to express concern over the MDA rules and ask for them to be changed.

The AIC letter, dated June 14, has raised questions over Yahoo Singapore's stance on the MDA scheme. On June 5, Yahoo South-east Asia managing editor Alan Soon posted on its website that the new licensing framework would pave the way for its reporters to gain accreditation. But Mr Soon also noted that Yahoo was already bound by existing guidelines and "further regulation is redundant".

Yesterday, a Yahoo spokesman said the "AIC views represent those of (the) industry" and are "broadly consistent with Yahoo's stance on the issue". On whether the new rules were targeted at Yahoo Singapore, Mr Kam said "there has never been any issue or concern about Yahoo's reporting".

Internet big boys concerned over rules for news sites
Global firms request two changes to licensing regulation
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 4 Jul 2013

FIVE major Internet and technology companies have expressed concern over new government licensing rules for online news sites, calling them "unwarranted and excessive".

They also warned that the new licensing framework could affect Singapore's business-friendly image and hamper innovation.

The companies - Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo and cloud computing corporation Salesforce - also urged the Government to ease up on the rules, which look set to spark a lively debate in Parliament next Monday.

The five are members of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association they had formed to represent their interests in Internet policy issues in the region.

Earlier this year, the five were among hundreds of companies, groups and individuals that objected to government legislation in the United States.

They said its Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, which aimed to address copyright infringement, would clamp down on free speech, innovation and the development of the Internet.

In Singapore, the new licensing regime affects only one of them: Yahoo. Its website Yahoo Singapore is among 10 sites that must have an individual licence.

Under the new framework, which kicked in on June 1, an individual licence is a must for websites with more than 50,000 Singapore visitors a month and which carry more than one news story about Singapore a week.

The licence entails putting up a $50,000 performance bond. Also, if or when told by the Government to take down prohibited content, the websites must comply in 24 hours.

Said the AIC: "This new regulation - and the regulatory trend that this may be indicative of - could unintentionally hamper Singapore's ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries in the technology space and attract investment in this key sector.

"We also believe the scope of the regulation and manner in which it was introduced have negatively impacted Singapore's global image as an open and business-friendly country."

The AIC made two requests.

One is for the regulation to include a statement that the websites will not be liable for content posted by users. To proactively police content is an "untenable position", the AIC said, noting that online platforms have "incentives" to address misuse of their services.

The second is for websites to be given a "reasonable timeframe" to comply, instead of up to 24 hours. The AIC said 24 hours was particularly difficult for international companies, which have to negotiate across time zones.

It also took issue with the $50,000 bond, saying it would be a "financial risk" to start-ups.

"It sends a very strong wrong message to the Internet community in and beyond Singapore that these changes could presage a more restrictive attitude to the Internet.

"It could also set a precedent for more restrictive regimes around the region," the AIC said in its three-page June 14 letter that was addressed to Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim.

The Ministry of Communications and Information said yesterday that it told the AIC that Singapore adopts a "light touch approach" in Internet regulations and the licensing framework has not changed this approach.

It reiterated that the new regulations are for greater parity for news providers on traditional and online media platforms. The content standards that sites have to adhere to have also "not resulted in the stifling of online discourse, nor have they prevented netizens from commenting on government policies".

On the 24-hour window requirement, the ministry said it is "important" in managing false news that may cause mass panic as information can spread quickly on the Internet.

As for the bond, it is to ensure websites remove prohibited content "quickly" and when directed to do so by the Government.

The ministry added that the Media Development Authority (MDA) met the AIC early last month to provide clarifications and invited it to take part in an upcoming public consultation on amendments to the Broadcasting Act next year.

The three firms providing the 10 licensed sites - Yahoo, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp - have given their feedback on the new licensing framework, which the MDA is reviewing, said the ministry. "The engagement process with the licensees is ongoing," said a ministry spokesman yesterday.

MPs urged to call for withdrawal of rules for news sites
Blogger group's policy brief to MPs also calls for public consultation
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2013

A GROUP of bloggers who organised a series of events to protest against the new licensing rules for news websites are now calling on Members of Parliament to ask for the regulations to be withdrawn or at least suspended.

The bloggers, who call themselves Free My Internet, issued the call in a policy brief they sent to MPs ahead of the Parliament sitting on Monday.

In the brief, posted online yesterday, the bloggers also appealed to MPs to commission an "open and transparent" public consultation with all stakeholders.

While the Media Development Authority (MDA) had implemented the rules last month, the bloggers hope MPs will get a chance to debate the need for these rules in Parliament.

Among other things, licensed news sites must remove prohibited content within 24 hours of a government order and put up a $50,000 performance bond.

The bloggers highlighted some key issues, like the lack of consultation and transparency in introducing the rules. The MDA had announced them in the same week they took effect.

They also felt the rules disregarded the findings of previous consultation exercises, like a 2008 report by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, calling for greater online space for political content.

Other issues the bloggers criticised include the "overly broad" definition of a news programme and the absence of a formal media regulation process in Singapore.

"An ideal media regulation regime should address concerns of online censorship and aspirations for a larger media and political space online while providing a conducive and predictable legal environment for credible and responsible players to develop and flourish," they said in their brief.

Since the MDA regulations were announced, Free My Internet has initiated an online petition and an online blackout and held a protest rally at Speakers' Corner.

MPs like Mr Alvin Yeo yesterday said they would read the brief ahead of Monday's sitting, which is likely to be a lively session as MPs from all three parties in Parliament will speak on the rules.

Several People's Action Party MPs have filed questions.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad and Mr Baey Yam Keng said they had met some bloggers and will reflect their views in their questions.

"But the brief will give greater clarity on what should be discussed and MPs will also come prepared," said Mr Zaqy.

Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party, who has read the brief, commended the online community's effort in contributing to the debate "in and out of Parliament".

Mr Giam and his party's MPs, Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Pritam Singh, have also filed questions.

NCMP Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party has filed an adjournment motion, which will let her speak on the topic for 20 minutes at the end of the sitting.


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