June 22nd, 2008
The bloggers’ proposals for Internet freedom include a call for an Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) through which society can take a stand on provocative internet content, thus reducing the need for government action. This proposal met with considerable interest at the public forum on 21 June. (See Yawning Bread’s comprehensive report here.) It has also been discussed in The Straits Times’ Forum pages, attracting both reactionary and supportive voices.
The following are further, personal, reflections stimulated by the 21 June forum.
What should be the government’s role in IC3?
The government may want to take the lead in organising a community moderation body. Some of the bloggers feel that this is a realistic approach, given Singapore’s top-down political culture. However, there is no reason to put all eggs in one basket. There is merit in an entirely bottom-up IC3 that can operate in parallel. There is no reason why there should be a single body serving this mission and claiming to monopolise the role of community mediation.
The IC3 can be thought of as just one element of an evolving Media Accountability System (MAS). In countries with a well developed MAS, there is usually a diversity of institutions ranging from formal public bodies with some legal powers (like the UK’s Offcom) and strong inter-media bodies (such as Sweden’s Press Council) to grassroots media watchdogs (such as FAIR in the US).
How can we ensure that the IC3 is effective?
There’s a tendency to think of how to engineer a perfect institution. Such discussions get bogged down in debates about who should be on the panel, and so on.
Experience with MAS bodies elsewhere, however, shows that no matter how carefully they are structured, they are ultimately judged by their output. There are no shortcuts. The IC3 will develop a reputation for sound judgments if it succeeds in delivering sound judgments. Then, it will grow in influence.
Are the bloggers offering to take over the government’s job?
Yes and no. Yes, there is a crying need for society to reclaim some of the functions that we have for too long been delegating to the government. This is a real national problem that both government and people recognise. People need to do things for themselves, and not automatically rely on the authorities. The regulation of social values is an area that is particularly ripe for more citizen participation. After all, if these are genuine social values that we are trying to protect, why shouldn’t society play a bigger role?
However, if the question is whether IC3 should have government-like powers, the answer is absolutely no. The IC3 would use moral suasion only. It issues opinions and nothing more. It would not have powers to investigate anyone, let alone to arrest, fine or jail them.
Indeed, one of the main rationales of the proposal is to substitute power and force with persuasion and influence. The bloggers trust that, in many cases, problems can be resolved within the community through persuasion and moderation, thus minimising the need for even light touch government action.
Isn’t it naïve to think that the government would agree to this?
The IC3 proposal is actually in keeping with the direction of regulation in Singapore. In other sectors, such as film censorship, there is already community consultation. In the past, censorship decisions were made by civil servants charged with the responsibility of making judgments on behalf of the rest of society. This system was modified many years ago, such that we now have a system of review by appeals committees made up of citizens. The bloggers are merely asking for similar principles to be applied to internet regulation, but with even less government direction than in film censorship.
How would things have been different if IC3 had existed during the “racist bloggers” incident?
In the “racist bloggers” incident, prosecution arose from police reports made by internet users. We don’t know what motivated those police reports. If the complainants really wanted to see the bloggers behind bars, they would have gone ahead and made police reports whether or not IC3 existed. However, it is quite possible that what the complainants wanted was a strong public signal that the bloggers had crossed the line and violated values that the country holds dear. If so, loud and clear condemnation by an IC3 may have been enough to satisfy the complainants.
Indeed, such bottom-up stands are ultimately better for society, for they go further in reinforcing social norms than top-down police action is able to. In the end, that’s surely what Singapore has to aim for: strengthening what George Yeo called our “social immunity” rather than embarking on the ultimately futile enterprise of trying to eradicate by force every anti-social element in cyberspace
WHAT THE BLOGGERS SAID
Here is an edited extract from the bloggers’ 21 April submission, to put the IC3 proposal in context:
In discussing media policy, some caricature the choices as a debate between those who understand the need for regulation and those who want a free-for-all. This is a false debate. The real issue is what kind of regulation can allow us, as individuals and as a society, to harness the benefits of free speech while minimising the harm that such speech can cause.
Any restriction to freedom of expression must be justified by a social purpose. Any measures taken should restrict freedom of expression as little as possible, and not catch legitimate speech in the net. Since a democratic society depends on the free flow of information and ideas, it is only when it is imperative to limit that flow in the public interest that limitation justified: the benefits of any restriction must outweigh its costs.
What regulation there needs to be should be based on clear, narrowly-tailored statutes and prosecution, not administrative discretion. However, only in extremis should there be prosecution, and only in instances where public safety is directly undermined. Otherwise, community moderation is the way forward, and to this end a consultative body (IC3) should be constituted. Matters of taste and offence to moral sensibilities should be mediated through community moderation, such as the consultative body.
We believe that almost all of society’s legitimate concerns about the abuse of free speech can be addressed outside the formal regulatory system. Online communities have already evolved sophisticated norms of informal selfregulation. Internet forums are almost always moderated; bloggers keep an eye over readers’ comments appended to their posts. Popular sites heavy with pictorial or video content, such as YouTube, have their own rules forbidding salacious material.
With the evolution of new technology and social practices of netizens, it is neither practical nor is there need for the state to play the role of a master moderator. Legislation and state intervention, except in extremis, do not provide the best solution in dealing with the emerging complexities of the Internet.
The Internet is a social space, and social norms of leeway and consideration are constantly shifting. Although we have faith that these norms will evolve in pro-social directions, we agree that this won’t happen without some concerted effort. What is needed is a process through which online communities are represented in Singapore’s search for the right balance between individual freedoms and social goals.
An Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) could comprise one-third independent content providers, one-third persons familiar with rapidly evolving digital technologies, and one-third regular consumers of Internet content (i.e. regular surfers). The IC3 would issue recommendations whenever controversies arise regarding digital content, for example offering its view when conflicts arise between the state and content providers alleged to have behaved irresponsibly.
Rather than chill potentially-beneficial discussion of race and religion through overzealous legislation, it may be better not to resort to prosecution with regard to such speech. Instead, alternative forums – like the IC3 – could be more representative and conciliatory. It has the flexibility to provide a nuanced stand, speaking out against bigoted and insensitive content, without guillotining freedom of speech. Through its moral force, it can retard the propagation and exacerbation of hate-filled speech, while leaving the door open to further discussion of the issues raised by any incident. In the process, society is given an all-important chance to build up its “immune” responses against provocative words – learning in particular to challenge bad ideas with better ideas. In contrast, when government is overprotective, it forecloses society’s opportunity to learn and grow.
The IC3’s deliberations should be open to public view – and digital technology can be harnessed to this goal. The objective over time is to subject more and more so-called “sensitive” areas to public reason, replacing intervention by the state (whether heavy handed or light touch) with people’s own capacities for discernment and judgement. The only viable long term response to the impracticality of internet censorship is to help Singapore mature as a society, online as well as offline.