October 17th, 2011
After a General Election in which online dissent left PAP politicians smarting, the government is considering new laws for the internet. It has hinted at stiffer regulation in its Addenda to the Presidential Address for the opening of the 12th Parliament.
The Law Ministry says, “Amongst others, the proliferation of new media has brought about new challenges to the rule of law. MinLaw will review legislation to deal with harmful and unlawful online conduct.”
Some changes are probably warranted and overdue. In particular, ordinary citizens have inadequate privacy protection in an age of highly intrusive and omnipresent digital media. Children are also inadequately protected.
But at issue is whether the intended legislation is instead directed at protecting the government from criticism. This depends on what the government considers “harmful”.
The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts notes, “Operating under a cloak of anonymity, some content creators also resort to lies and misinformation.” While no responsible citizen would want “lies and misinformation” to be circulated, no country has found a way to outlaw these without creating a situation in which the cure is worse than the disease – muffling citizens’ legitimate right and duty to question those in power and to debate national issues.
For this reason, international best practice outlaws only the most extreme of speech, such as hate speech that incites against racial or religious groups. In dealing with less extreme messages, it’s widely accepted that the best solution is to combat such speech with more truthful information – which an open society is more likely to generate.
Also mentioned in the MICA addendum is the need for a “code of responsible conduct”. Such a voluntary code can be a positive development for websites that value honesty, transparency and accountability. However, any attempt by government to impose it from above is guaranteed to kill such a process in its tracks.
Media accountability systems generally get moving when media recognise that the alternative – government regulation – is worse. But they only take off when government stays clear, leaving the media themselves to devise and implement their codes of practice.