Newspapers, later the radio, then television, have been the main way of reporting news and information for many years. But while that has helped the advancement of society generally, there are serious risks which come with the easy dissemination of information. So, modern society has over time worked out sensible rules for the media to abide by so that it will be a tool for enlightenment and progress, and not one which divides and destroys.
These rules are not peculiar to Singapore, but have been developed in many other countries, including the Commonwealth of nations, from which we inherited much of our laws. So eg. we have rules of sub judice, where the media is not permitted to discuss and speculate on pending court actions or criminal charges as that may prejudice the fair trial of the action. We also have defamation rules, which protect the freedom to express an opinion honestly held, but not the propagation of lies. Responsible newspapers apologise or print clarifications when they get the facts wrong, or print responses to an opinion which is not shared. These rules advance the cause of accuracy, transparency and accountability, and provide a framework where people can live and prosper in a healthy environment.
The problem is that much of these rules and conventions were developed in the age before the internet. The internet represents a platform for everyone to share information with, and express their views to, many others. This facility is no longer the domain of traditional media. That is a good thing in many ways. However, today many people, particularly the younger generation, turn more to the internet for news and information, and not only from sites maintained by established news agencies or reputable journalists. The rules, convention and discipline which have been built up for many years do not apply or are difficult to enforce, and there are serious consequences to this.
I am not attacking the internet or people’s right to express their honest views. There is much good in this. But just as society had developed rules and norms for the traditional media, we need to think about doing the same for the internet.
Let me give a stark example. After the announcement of the investigation into the conduct of the former heads of CNB and SCDF, there was much discussion on the net about what they did. That is to be expected. However, what also happened was that people began speculating about the identity of the woman who was involved. Pictures and profiles of various women were circulated. Can you imagine the immense pain and distress of the women who had been wrongly identified? How would you feel if that was your mother, wife, sister or daughter being so freely discussed and dissected? What is their recourse? They can sue for defamation, but who do they sue? The messages and photos would have been circulated to many people, making it difficult to track down who is responsible. And if the posts are anonymous, as many of them are, how do you go about identifying the perpetrator? The woman would have to apply to Court to compel the different hosts of the sites or the Internet Service Provider to disclose the identity of the individual behind the post, but that may not yield meaningful results. And how many people have the resources to take such arduous, expensive action? It is unfair to the ordinary man in the street that his reputation, and sometimes his livelihood, can be destroyed by casual statements. It does not provide a healthy environment.
The concerns I have expressed are not new. Many others have expressed it before. At least one country, Japan has tried to do something about it. In 2001, Japan passed a very statute called the Act on the Limitation of Liability for Damages of Specified Telecommunications Service Providers and the Right to Demand Disclosure of Identification Information of the Senders. Probably sounds better in Japanese.
We need to develop our own laws to address these issues. Again, I stress that I am not attacking the internet or freedom of speech, in particular, the freedom to express an honest opinion. In fact, many proponents of free speech say that it is a necessary ingredient of transparency and accountability. And we all want that. But where is the transparency and accountability when a person can publish lies anonymously, and ruin the life of an ordinary individual. Why does it cost nothing to post an untruth, but much pain and financial resources for an innocent person to obtain justice?
All over the world, countries are grappling with this very same issue. It is a new paradigm. I propose that we develop a framework of laws which balances the right of an individual to express his views on the net, and the right of an individual to seek redress quickly and at low cost. It is also important that the laws must be clear enough to prevent abuse, and not used as a means to stifle legitimate speech. That is a difficult balance, but right now, where the net is concerned, there is complete imbalance. We may even have to set up a specialised agency to help members of the public who have legitimate grievances. I am stressing “public” because those with resources can better take care of themselves. My proposal is meant to benefit ordinary Singaporeans, so that they will not be left powerless.
The Internet is an important tool for advancement, and when used properly, provides a platform to do much good. But we should all want it to be used responsibly. I accept that the challenge will be to find an acceptable balance and it may well take some time to do so. I hope that conversation will begin soon.