Monday, March 5, 2012

Internet Freedom

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.


  1. But surely, sir, there should be a difference between the level of protection awarded to an individual versus the level of protection awarded to a public figure like yourself or the PM or his siblings. For a politician, you are firmly in the public eye. undoubtedly there will be speculation about you.
    It is perhaps arguable that a voracious media keeps you on your toes, preventing you from doing any misdeeds. The so-called 4th estate in other words.

    That is the key gripe of most singaporeans I believe. I respectfully hope that change can be done such that politicians can be held accountable and news, even if inaccurate, must not be clamped down due to the ensuing public interest.

    I am a law student.the double-blessed issue of politicians in singapore has engendered much academic debate. I hope for change, for if change is to happen, singapore will be the ultimate winner.

  2. If the printed press printed something incorrect, what would the normal process to have it rectified? Those involved will write in and the press corrects it. That is how it should be and that is how it will be for the Internet as well. So what is the issue?

    Even without having it publicly posted on internet walls, people will still talk about it. That is human nature. That is also why there is such a word called 'rumours'. The above process applies for the Internet should you need something to be corrected.

    And why only the Internet is targeted? Why not tabloid press that does a lot of the same damage you've mentioned? Just because they are the press therefore trustworthy?

    The reason why the Internet is such a buzz now is because the people have been muzzled for far too long. And the press relentlessly printing propaganda articles is not helping either. Without the Internet, you would not be able to even post this up.

    The Internet is what is it. You read whatever information you can find and you make your own opinion instead of having it shoved down your throat. Leave it alone.

    You don't counter lies with laws. You counter it with the truth.

  3. Introducing laws to govern speech online will stifle creativity and free speech, even if the people's opinions are honest and reflect what their feelings within. If people have to refer to laws before posting their opinions, the honesty levels of these opinions will drop. The case of the woman in the CNB case is just 1 isolated incident. I believe the amount of feedback the government has received and therefore the opportunities to improve their services and gauge public sentiment much outweighs the harm caused by black sheep netizens. Just as you do not ban cars due to road accidents, you do not obstruct the highway of free speech because of such incidents.

    The amazing thing about the internet is that we can on leverage on the power of the internet community to set limits. Look at how popular sites such as youtube use the community to flag inappropriate content. So the best way forward is for the government to trust on Singaporeans to know how to discern good information from sensational ones, rather than rely on laws. Internet free speech is a reality going forward so please do not fight it.

  4. I'm curious... who exactly does your proposed law seek to benefit? The ruling party, politicians or the commoner? As far as what I have observed in recent times, the subjects of much criticisms from social media are ruling party MPs and some are opposition MPs. I think you are assuming that the common folks are crying out for such a law, I am not convinced. The example you cited (alleged parties to the CNB/SCDF case) sounds like cause for concern, but it is not clear to me how those few women's plights are reason enough to curb millions and millions of social network players through new laws. I think there are more important things the government can do and one of them is to obey the law and call by-election in Hougang asap.

  5. You're using the hypothetical 'worst-case' scenario to push for legislation that will likely (if passed) chill a wide swathe of speech, this being over-inclusive in its operation. You can't not know that. And yet you say you're not attacking the internet. Come on. You can't have it both ways. If you want to chill speech on the net, at least man up and admit that, and then there's a real discussion to be had. (and for what it's worth, in matters of constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms, having overinclusive effects when restricting them is bad, and should not be done).

    And who is likely to benefit from this regulation?

    Another point - when it comes to regulating the internet, so much more is involved than just touching one area - did you follow the recent SOPA/PIPA discussions at all?

    I worry that you talk about regulating the internet with so little understanding of how the internet and online communities actually work. (experts, please!) Speech is limited (and chilled) enough as it is in Singapore without having to regulate the internet; stay far away from this subject, no good to the public or to Singapore can come from your involvement in this area of regulation. How about spending your energies instead addressing wage inequity, employment prospects for Singaporeans, cost of living and other things that make a real difference to more people?

  6. Something else amazing about the internet is that it allows for easy conversations. Hence it is a fantastic platform for bloggers to not only spread their messages but also to engage their readers. If you want the conversations to begin soon, why not let it begin here?

  7. It's amazing that you conveniently disregarded what the local newspapers ("the traditional media") did in the case of Yaw Shin Leong. There were pages upon pages of "reports", complete with professionally made graphics and stakeouts at his apartment. Gosh! Were you under a rock, or do you not consume the traditional media?

    """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?"""

    It appears your heart skips a beat for some, but not others.

    I would love to hear what you feel about the traditional media's actions in the case of Yaw Shin Leong. How would you push for laws that allow mothers, sisters, wives and daughters to seek recourse from similar actions of the traditional media?

    """... 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."""

    Doesn't the traditional media in Singapore have so much more beef to destroy an ordinary person's reputation and livelihood, when compared to anonymous comments on the internet? I doubt an "ordinary person" (say a person at the 10th percentile or 50th percentile of wage earners) has the means and the resources to pursue a defamation suit against a newspaper behemoth to completion. Can our current legal system really protect an "ordinary person" if he/she has been defamed by a known media giant?

    Lastly, please do define your "ordinary person" and "public".

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  8. I welcome the idea as long as the guidelines are very clear that it is to encourage responsible free speech by discouraging irresponsible and defamatory behaviour.

    I think Hri's personal experience has made him realise how vile the Internet can be and how online tabloids will stop at nothing to misquote and misrepresent simply to increase traffic and therefore raise $$$$$$ad dollars to their sites. It was always black and white - one can only be a fool to not realise the advertising/donation $$$$$ factor that motivate many of these power and money-hungry editors.

    Perhaps the penalty could be a public black list of the worst offenders. Nothing on the Internet can ever be erased. If those who are grossly maligned suffer trauma as a result and permanent reputation damage, I wholly support the entire exercise to discourage irresponsible journalism, but it must be cautiously handled and perhaps exercised only in extreme cases such as those that could compromise social harmony e.g. the irresponsible stirring of racism issues by deliberate misrepresentation to stir controversy.

    Single the journalists out. I for one am sick and tired of volunteers and incompetent journalists in media outlets like TOC hiding behind the herd and stirring up sensationalist headlines to chalk up readership.

    The legal route is an expensive one for many to embark on. Perhaps, the solution is as simple as shaming the journalist(s) who seek to shame others with falsehoods.

    If that can make them even edit their rubbish articles before they hit 'publish', I am all for it. People in The Online Citizen make me nauseous and I am surprised by the gentleness in which they have been dealt with given the petulance and infantile manner in how they have carried out their shoddy business since they were gazetted and egos of the staff team ballooned.

    There are plenty of good online outlets to turn to, letting irresponsible journalists have a taste of their own medicine will hopefully raise the level of conversation from petty misquotes and personal attacks to serious and important issues.