A voluntary code of ethics for blogs: possible but…



March 11th, 2012

I was quoted in today’s Today suggesting that prominent independent websites come together to develop a voluntary code of ethics. An equally important point I made to the reporter was not carried in Today‘s article: that there is no need for any tightening of government regulation of online political debate. It’s important to see these as complementary ideas. Bloggers won’t consider voluntarily modulating their voices as long as they feel the government’s hands around their throats.

Substituting government regulation with community moderation is a principle that was contained in the Bloggers 13 proposal, which I co-authored with Choo Zheng Xi of The Online Citizen, Alex Au of Yawning Bread, Gerald Giam and other bloggers. Our report said that bloggers were prepared to take steps towards responsible, accountable blogging. It even proposed an Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) as an avenue for community moderation. But this had to be part of comprehensive reforms in which the government would roll back regulation of political debate. Singapore’s laws and regulations on freedom of expression needed to be revised to conform with international norms and best practices, the position paper said.

The more experienced and better-run blogs know that they have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by committing to a voluntary code of ethics – it would help distinguish them from the pack. This applies in mainstream journalism (it is usually highest-quality news outlets – like the New York Times and BBC – that invest the most in accountability mechanisms such as codes of ethics and ombudsmen) and should apply in citizen journalism as well. In a crowded market, organisations can “brand by values“, as some journalism thought leaders have put it.

But any code of ethics or mechanism for community moderation will only take off if it is devised entirely by practitioners, with not even the slightest hint of official influence or control. Even if totally independent, it would be difficult enough for any group of bloggers, no matter how well respected, to persuade others to adopt a code. Herding cats would be simpler. The merest whiff of government involvement would destroy any chance of success – that would be like trying to herd cats while walking a dog.

The best thing the government can do to encourage the process is to provide a clear and unambiguous signal that it will not tighten the regulation of political speech. As Bloggers 13 argued, Singapore needs something like a Malaysian-style “no censorship” guarantee.

So, if bloggers do not respond to the government’s calls to self-regulate, it is not necessarily for want of a sense of social responsibility. It’s more likely to be due to a lack of trust in the government’s commitment to freedom of speech.

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