It seems that these days, the government can’t do anything right in the eyes of citizens. The latest bone of contention is the new MDA licensing framework – a scheme to regulate Internet-distributed news by requiring websites that meet certain criteria to apply for a license, post a bond and comply with regulatory requirements to remove articles that violate the Internet Code of Practice.
As a journalist myself (albeit a very tame, bowl-fed one) I am inclined to see both sides of the regulatory argument. I believe that at least some regulation is necessary for online discourse, if only to stop genuinely harmful and criminal material like hate speech and child pornography. Regulators also have a major role to play in correcting misinformation that the public may not be able to identify on its own (e.g. the rumours about MM Lee’s death last year).
At the same time, I strongly believe that online discourse is maturing. Look at it this way: we would pay little or no attention to someone who stood up in the middle of a talk on some relatively innocuous topic, interrupted the speakers without introducing himself/herself and proceeded to rail at length about hot-button topics that, while provocative, are only marginally related to the topic of discussion. (Yes, this really happened in a conference I recently attended. The whole hall applauded when the speaker told the person to shut up.) In exactly the same manner, the online community is arriving at a point where most individual commenters have the knowledge, maturity and tolerance to identify a troll and brush it off – or to identify a provocateur and report him/her/it.
From both the above standpoints, I disagree very deeply with the new licensing framework for websites. Examining it from both sides of the fence, I see little to recommend it and less to make anyone pleased.
1. Excessively broad definitions
The criteria used to identify websites requiring an individual license is the same definition used under the Broadcasting Act to identify exceptions from the class licence. (Full text of the Act can be viewed on the Attorney-General’s Chambers website.) In short, if I am reading the Act correctly, criteria originally developed for the purpose of broad exemption are now being used for the purpose of broad inclusion.
Which is to say that the licensing framework, in reversing the original intent of the definition, now deliberately targets the very parties that were formerly exempted from compliance. The problem here is that the original definition, being an exemption, is extremely broad and meant, in fact, to shield small operators from the burden of compliance. By using it as the new framework intends, the definition now becomes a hammer and not a shield. A bloody big hammer.
2. Fails to account for technological advances
According to the AGC website, the Broadcasting Act was last revised in 2004. Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist then. In the last decade, social media and the Internet have changed vastly, so much so that quantitative measurements can’t really be trusted to be quantitative any more. For example, I’ve heard quite a bit from people in IT about how the plethora of channels and technology available today make it possible for the 50,000 visitor criterion to be used, abused, evaded, reinterpreted, misinterpreted and generally considered irrelevant. Media today simply is not the same as media in the last century, and the licensing framework completely fails to take that into account.
3. Imposes an unnecessary financial burden
In my personal opinion, the S$50,000 bond serves only two purposes, both of which are to the detriment of online discourse and free speech in general. One: it is a bald-faced cash grab, no different from election deposits. Two: it is a bare-faced deterrent, also no different from election deposits. I’m very familiar with the principles of regulation and compliance, and in every discussion of compliance I’ve heard, a common thread has come up – the burden on those who have to comply.
$50,000 is a burden of outrageous size for a website, one that the private sector is very unlikely to agree to bear. To state that this sum is “consistent with that required of niche TV broadcasters” is to completely ignore the fact that the investment and, by extension, the cash reserves of a television broadcaster, even a niche one, is far greater than that of an online portal. Placing such an incredible burden of compliance upon operators, in tandem with the paperwork and the censorship, practically guarantees that websites will shut down, go underground or simply use technological methods to make themselves not meet the licensing criteria.
4. Invalidates all issues of trust and good faith
I do not believe that this framework was conceived in good faith and I do not believe that it will be implemented in good faith. Our government has a nice track record of expanding rulings and legislation for use as a hammer to achieve its own ends, which are not always favourable to the citizenry. Consider, for example, what Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim told the BBC – that the government wants to “make sure that [the public] read the right things”!
What are the “right things”? Who decides? Who defines? Perhaps Dr Yaacob expanded on that and the BBC didn’t include his explanation in the report. I’ll give MCI the benefit of doubt. But those words say a lot by themselves. They say that the government doesn’t trust the public. That the government doesn’t believe the public will act in good faith. That the government is not willing to give the public a chance to decide for itself.
With all that in mind, why should we believe that the government is worthy of trust, that the government acts in good faith, that the government is worthy to make such decisions for us?
Maybe MDA will turn out to be the good guy after all. Maybe they’ll release some clarifications to the framework, bring it up in Parliament, discuss it openly and transparently as a good government should. Maybe this was just one great big miscommunication. I’m still giving them the benefit of doubt.
But until then…I’ll doubt.