Online freedom: time to revise the Singapore report card

For all the thunderclouds and occasional lightning strikes that bloggers faced in Singapore, we at least used to be able to point to one, clear silver lining: Not one political site had been banned in 17 years of “light touch” internet regulation.

Today, 10 December 2013, that silver lining is officially history.

Through the government’s clumsy handling of one site that didn’t even pose a serious threat, Singapore has now stumbled into the company of authoritarian regimes that are prepared to outlaw politically inconvenient blogs. Although it could prove to be an unintended anomaly, the Breakfast Network’s death by red tape is nonetheless a landmark event in the brief history of online regulation.

Of course, there has long been a class licence system and a registration system. And yes, the government always had the legal power to ask ISPs to block any site it chose. But that special treatment was reserved for a symbolic list of pornographic sites, as well as a few extremist religious sites and, most recently, one service that promoted extramarital affairs.

Singapore’s vibrant ecosystem of socio-political blogs was spared the discretionary licensing regime that has blocked the development of alternative print and broadcast media. Blogs could be punished if what they published broke the law – but they were never expected to persuade regulators that they deserved the right to publish before they were allowed to do so.

Until today.

After trying to impose unnecessarily onerous registration requirements on two sites, one of them, Breakfastnetwork.sg, has decided not to comply. The Media Development Authority’s response: “Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require that Breakfast Network cease its online service.“

Technically, it is not the first time that a site has hit its own kill switch. Sintercom, Singapore’s first online magazine (it would have been called a blog, except that the word had not been invented yet), decided to close down after the government got it to register in 2001. But that registration process was far simpler, and it never reached the stage where the regulator demanded that it cease operations.

What the latest move portends for internet freedom in Singapore is still unclear. Interestingly, when Breakfast Network was asked to register a few weeks ago, leading socio-political blogs like The Online Citizen and the Independent ignored the news. Perhaps most bloggers have reconciled themselves to the changing winds. Or, they are confident that they can still navigate safely through Singapore’s online environment. After all, even the Breakfast Network still lives – on its Facebook page.

The most hopeful interpretation is that, in the words of one Facebook poster, the death of the site represents “more a fumble in execution than a change in policy” on the part of MDA.

Whatever the case, a threshold has been crossed. Goodbye “light touch”. It was nice knowing you.

MDA REPLY (14 December 2013)

[I am not persuaded by MDA's reply and will explain why when I have more time. In the meantime, I am running its reply here for the record.]

Dear Mr Cherian George,

1.      We refer to your 10 December commentary, “Online freedom: time to revise the Singapore report card”.

2.      The Breakfast Network was asked to register because it had ceased to be a personal blog or website, but had incorporated itself as the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL). As a corporate entity, Breakfast Network Pte Ltd has a greater possibility of coming under foreign influence via foreign funding. This registration requirement is simply to ensure that Breakfast Network will not receive foreign funding.

3.      You declare that The Breakfast Network shut down due to “red tape” and “unnecessarily onerous registration”. We would like to clarify that this is not so. The Breakfast Network shut down because its editor and owner chose not to register, as required by MDA. Ms Henson claimed the requirements were onerous, citing the need to register volunteer contributors to her site. MDA issued a statement on 13 Dec 2013, refuting her claim. At no point was Ms Henson told that contributors needed to also register. She was only told that editors, including pro bono editors, had to register. As for the reporting of sources of revenue, MDA informed Ms Henson that she could suggest alternative ways of providing the required information.

4.      Secondly, nothing has changed for Internet Content Providers. They continue to operate and publish under the existing class licence framework which has been in place since 1996. Under this framework, certain groups such as political associations and political websites have always been required to register with the MDA.  However, up until now, the registration requirement did not come with an undertaking not to receive foreign funds.  This is because up until now, the political websites which had to register were also gazetted as political associations, which meant that they were already prohibited from receiving foreign funds under the Political Donations Act.

5.      You also characterise the registration process as an exercise for the Breakfast Network to “persuade regulators they deserve the right to publish before they are allowed to do so”. This is an astounding description. The registration merely requires the provision of names of persons involved in the provision, management and/or operation of the Breakfast Network, and an undertaking by them not to receive foreign funding.

6.      Our internet regulations have not changed.  Neither has our long standing principle that politics should remain a matter for Singaporeans and Singapore only.

Leave a Reply