August 30th, 2008
The government-appointed AIMS panel has called for Singapore’s symbolic ban on 100 websites to be lifted. AIMS (the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society) says that the ban can be replaced by more holistic, community-based defences against undesirable internet content.
If the proposal is accepted, it would mark the most significant freeing up of the internet since content regulations were introduced in 1996. However, just like the ban itself, lifting it would have a mainly symbolic effect, possibly signaling the government’s recognition that a paternalistic approach to internet regulation is neither sustainable nor wise.
Coincidentally, the AIMS paper comes out in the same week that Malaysian regulators abandoned their decade-old no censorship guarantee and required ISPs to block the controversial political website, Malaysia Today. Singapore’s media regulations are similar to Malaysia’s in many respects, but Malaysia’s internet bill of rights, which includes the no censorship pledge, was never replicated here.
Singapore’s 1996 regulations empowered the authorities to order ISPs to block any website. The government stated that this power would not be used for political censorship but only to signpost Singapore society’s moral values. A symbolic list of websites was banned. The vast majority are pornographic sites, but the list is understood to include some extreme religious sites. No political site is known to have ever been banned.
In its consultation paper, AIMS says that the ban is ineffective: “Those who are Net-savvy can already bypass the ban anyway.”
AIMS also points out that the ban doesn’t help promote a culture of responsibility. “The existence of the ban may give parents a false sense of security when the reality is that the 100 websites are merely symbolic.”
It adds: “In our focus group discussions with parents and educators, AIMS found that parents and teachers were under the impression that the list of blocked sites had more than the 100 sites, and that it provides enough protection for their children… Though there is some merit in symbolism, it would be counter productive if the ban causes such confusion and gives parents a false sense of security.”
The paper does not say whether AIMS wants the government to do away with the regulation allowing it to ban sites, or merely to stop using those powers. Keeping these powers in the books would allow a future government to engage in the kind of political censorship that has just been witnessed in Malaysia.
A group of 13 socio-political bloggers called for end to the ban – and to all internet-specific regulations – in a set of proposals for internet freedom released in April.
Read The Online Citizen’s report of yesterday’s AIMS press conference here.