Rationality vs political expediency in internet policy



June 24th, 2008

dsc_1178Address at the Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform, 21 June 2008.

Since the time allocated to me is just eight minutes, let me make just eight quick points:

First, I want to comment on the process of your proposal. I would like to add my congratulations to the authors of this proposal for making a thoughtful and persuasive case. But I’m even more impressed with the fact that this is not a unanimously agreed upon document – which is a rarity in Singapore. It is customary in Singapore for committee members to sign on even if they don’t agree with all the conclusions, because that is the politically correct thing to do. Your process shows a level of maturity among the bloggers that recognizes that there is no single right answer to our problems. Especially so in the internet world. As we all know, it is a constantly and rapidly changing world and defies easy solutions. And when I looked at the specific points where there IS disagreement, they actually reflect the dilemmas that many others are also faced with, including the government.

My second point leads from there which is political expediency. Even where all of you have unanimously agreed upon, because it is so rational, there is no guarantee that the government will accept that recommendation — because it may not be politically expedient at this point in time. There is a sharp distinction between what is rational – rational even to political leaders – and what is politically expedient. As we all know, politics is supposed to be the art of the possible and there are a number of aspects of this proposal that could be argued as politically inexpedient at this point in time. Personally, I don’t want to get into a debate on that point because I can’t speak for politicians. However, even if some of your rational proposals are not accepted in this round, they should remain in public discourse so more ground can be gained over time which will increase the chances that they are accepted at a later time. One good thing we all must take note of: the nanny state that used to think it can control most things, if not all things, is in retreat. Technology has seen to that. But the alternative to the nanny state is not a totally free state, as the authors of this proposal have clearly acknowledged.

That acknowledgment leads to my third point – the role of symbolism. The state cannot move quickly from saying “I can do everything” to “I can do nothing.” No state can. The state must and does take positions along a spectrum of possibilities and some of them are effective in practice and some are not. One argument by the Singapore government is that even if the measure is not effective in practice, it has potency as a symbolic gesture. The 100 banned websites fall into this category of symbolism. The same argument is likely to be applied for several other restrictions on the internet. If, indeed, there is an effective symbolic value — like our national anthem which most people don’t understand but sing with feeling anyway – there is a case for holding up those symbols. But there is little evidence that the banning of 100 sites has had that effect. Instead, we have much evidence that it has brought about a completely undeserved reputation by the lumping of Singapore with China, North Korea and Myanmar as totalitarian internet regimes, when, in fact, our internet is vastly freer than theirs. This kind of symbolism is bringing us ill repute rather than high credit. So the government has to be far more astute in employing symbolism which may boomerang on us.

My fourth point is also related to the question of repute but in the domain of law, which this proposal addresses in several instances. When laws are framed too vaguely or too broadly or when they are hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles with the promise that it will be applied with a light touch or when laws are created that are unenforced or are unenforceable in practice, or seen as self-serving for the party in power, they generate a poor reputation for our legal system. This is a pertinent and crucially important point. Many internet regulations are clearly questionable in this regard. However, there are indications that the government is reviewing such laws and as this proposal contains valuable insights from the users’ point of view, they should be taken into account.

My next point is also related to the legal domain and it refers to the dictum “regulate what is regulatable.” There is a paradigmatic difference between the old media environment and the new media environment. The power of the state now has to confront the power of individuals and especially the power of those outside its unilateral jurisdiction. Fortunately, there has been a realization of this fundamental shift in power balance and government spokespersons themselves are now talking about trying to regulate what is regulatable. In this regard, your various proposals on saving Singapore from the embarrassment of impotent laws and from disrepute to the judicial system itself are likely to be recognised. However, while judicious legislation is necessary, it is not sufficient to deal with the problems of the internet. And that is my next point.

My sixth point addresses the need for community consultation and moderation, so strongly argued in this proposal. In one sense, this is not all a new message for the Singapore government. It has, for long, convened numerous committees made up of what it considers to be knowledgeable and concerned citizens, representing the community at large, to seek their views and advice. I do think the government would welcome suggestions to improve such mechanisms, including the proposed Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3). I also think that the multilateral composition of the IC3 makes for a better consultancy forum than currently available. But it would be naive to think that such consultative committees would make a dramatically different impact as long as these committees are constituted and controlled by the government. Political expediency will invariably kick in and constrain the outcome.

My seventh point addresses what I consider to be the single most important piece in the whole matrix of legislation, consultation and consensus building. The way the new communication technologies are developing, there is little or nothing the state or even sagely committees can do to save the public unless the public is prepared to save itself. Every single day, our most vulnerable group, our children, as well as we adults are exposed to enormous amounts of information, some which are going to be clearly undesirable by our individual reckoning. The best way to resist these undesirable elements is to build what Minister George Yeo long ago articulated as the social immune system. We have to invest a lot more thinking and resources into building this system which was mooted but left to languish for a long time. And it is also important to recognize that this system will not have a completion date. The system will forever be a work in progress as technology changes and as our collective responses change and adapt. But for the work to truly progress, one of the building blocks we need is exactly what this group of bloggers is doing – a robust and honest engagement with the issues at hand and a public sharing of their views. Social immune systems cannot be mandated from heaven. They have to build from ground up.

My eighth and final point is to salute the blogging community for filling up what has been called the missing speech. We often talk about harmful speech and offensive speech but do not think of the missing speech – the speech that is necessary for the public to learn about themselves and among themselves, the speech that is necessary to cultivate civil literacy, the speech that is necessary for citizens to use to govern themselves. The blogging community in Singapore is taking a significant initiative in this regard and I hope it will grow into a speech that will be heard loud and clear.

Arun Mahizhnan is the deputy director at the Institute of Policy Studies.

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