Wednesday, June 25, 2008

After thoughts on the Proposals for Internet freedom in Singapore

I was at an open forum which put forth a proposal for Internet freedom in Spore last Saturday. It was a well spent 1.5 hrs which saw mainly a panel of bloggers as well as respected figures from the Institute of Policy Studies debating and discussing on the points raised by the proposal. Henceforth, all statements in this post are my own positions and not the stance of my organisation.

Some interesting points which struck me in the course of the discussion included how regulations should be platform-neutral and how media regulation should be harmonised. The latter, esp, was pretty interesting as it was something which came under debate in my telecomm policies class as an undergraduate, though usually discussed in a Western context.

While I agreed with points on how there is a need to revise certain existing legislation, even come up with a set of new rules in a new media environment, I found the point of using community moderation instead of formal regulation to address the concern of the potential abuse of free speech contentious to say the least. The approach proposed was to set up a IC3 - Internet Content Consultative Committee, to handle controversies which arise due from digital content (e.g blogs, forums, etc.). Their objective over time is to subject the more sensitive areas of speech to public reason, replacing state intervention.

Though this might be the ideal solution to "policing" the internet, I have my doubts about how this going to work. In an utopian society in an ideal world, this might actually work, where citizens, or netizens in this case, operate on the premise of rational logical systems. However, does it really make sense to replace state intervention with civic rules and moral authority? One reason why laws and legislation exist is to ensure consistency. The lack of consistency would result ultimately in chaos, which will serve no one any good. If current legislation lack consistency, perhaps that might be the starting point of how existing legislation should be revamped, instead of doing away with state legislation. Even among the three groups of people proposed for the IC3, each community comes in with their own values and vested interests. How will this ensure public reason and not organised chaos?

It was mentioned during the QnA session which ensued after the presentation that it is important for the netizens to exercise responsiblity. However, how does one enforce that? among the 1.5mill (& growing) local bloggers? I spoke briefly to one of the panelists after the session and he emphasised on the how it basically means relying on human decency. Which seems to be a pretty weak argument to me. With the relative anonymity that the internet proffers, it is all the more enticing for those who want to use it as a platform for abuse. Will reprimands work in this case? In fact, it might become another school shootings scenario, where people might carry out defamatory, anti-social, activities online just to get attention.

Although I agree that having the government on board might weaken the credibility of the IC3 Committe, I find it might actually be to their advantage if they are to position themselves as a conduit between the government and the people. Also, if the old adage of how absolute power corrupts absolutely stands, should the IC3 report or work with some other organisation? If not the government, a think tank perhaps?

All in all, I think this is a laudable event and definitely something that everyone who's anyone online should take note of. It was an invigorating exercise of intellectual stimulus and to a certain extent, common sense. Interesting stuff.