In support of a bloggers’ Code of Ethics – Part 2

Dharmendra Yadav’s TODAY article calling on bloggers to self-regulate continues to draw mixed reactions from local blogosphere. Aaron, Yuhui and I generally support the suggestion. BL agrees that blogs should self-regulate, but doubts the feasibility of implementing the idea. Other bloggers, including Dr Huang, Cowboy Caleb and Elia Diodati feel that it is unnecessary and impossible.

I don’t think Dharmendra and Aaron were calling for a formal blogger’s association which will censor or censure its members who do not toe the line. That is not only undesirable but also impractical—bloggers simply won’t join the association. There is also no intention to muzzle the “last bastion of truly free expression”, as Dr Huang colourfully describes blogosphere. “Censorship” is as much a bad word to bloggers, as “welfare” is to the Singapore government.

Rather than any type of association, whether formal or informal, I would prefer a Code of Ethics that the majority of law-abiding bloggers would willingly agree to. This Code should be concise, localised to the Singapore context, simple to understand, easy to adhere to, and non-binding. Its function would be symbolic rather than regulatory. It would be somewhat like the our National Pledge. The Pledge, penned by our first foreign minister S Rajaratnam, is a short and straightforward, yet deeply meaningful statement. Almost all Singaporeans from all walks of life and political persuasions agree with it. The Pledge itself has no legally binding requirements, but those who choose not to adhere to the statements set forth in the Pledge are likely to find themselves contravening some laws of our land.

Once a bloggers’ Code is agreed upon, it could be hosted on its own website. Bloggers who agree to adhere to the Code can then place a logo (like CaseTrust) on their own blog with a link to the Code.

My rationale behind advocating a Code of Ethics is two-fold.

Firstly, it would help illuminate the “out-of-bound (OB) markers” that exist in Singapore so that bloggers don’t inadvertently cross them and end up in hot soup.

The fact that the vast majority of bloggers use pseudonyms rather than their real names on their blogs belies a mistaken belief that pseudonyms provide a high level of identity protection for bloggers. This is a false security. One’s identity is easily traced through the IP address that ISPs (either Singnet, Starhub or Pacnet for all residential users in Singapore) issue to customers each time they log in to the Internet. You can easily find out your own IP address. All website logs also keep track of the IP addresses of their visitors. In addition, the surfing habits of visitors can also be determined through the logs. For example, my logs tell me that 24 per cent of my visitors are Singnet customers, 87 per cent use Windows XP operating system, and 80 per cent of them are from Singapore. I even know what pages they were on just before they visited my blog (i.e. the referral pages).

In countries like the US, the authorities require a subpoena to get the ISP to reveal the name behind the IP address. Not here Singapore. In the absence of privacy laws, the police can easily compel your ISP to reveal that information even without a court order. In fact, even without asking the ISP, the police are exempt from seeking permission before gaining access to computer servers to conduct their investigations (under the Computer Misuse Act, Section 14). Readers would recall the uproar in 1999 when Singnet was caught using a Trojan horse to scan its customers’ computers. Incredibly, Singnet had asked the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) IT security unit to scan the computers of its more than 200,000 subscribers. (MHA is the parent ministry to the Singapore Police Force and the Internal Security Department. It is not the agency in charge of info-comm regulation.)

Most bloggers are not fully aware of the wide array of laws that can be used against them should they cross that red line. These include the Computer Misuse Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Penal Code and the Sedition Act. The latter was used several times in the past year against bloggers whose writings the authorities deemed to be inflammatory and racist.

Recently the MHA released its proposed amendments to the Penal Code. Section 298 of the Penal Code is to be expanded to allow the authorities to prosecute individuals who utter words with the intent of wounding not just the religious, but also the racial feelings of any person. Under the revised defamation laws (Section 499), explicit mention will include imputation “made or published in written, electronic or other media”. What this means is that (1) the authorities will soon have the option to prosecute racist bloggers under either the Sedition Act or the Penal Code, and (2) it would be easier to charge bloggers for defamation.

The Code of Ethics should therefore state, in simple terms, that its bloggers agree not contravene the laws of Singapore.

Secondly, a Code of Ethics could help raise the credibility to the blogging community. It has been repeated time and again by ruling party politicians and the government-controlled media that blogs are not credible sources of information, unlike the mainstream media. In a speech in October to foreign journalists, PM Lee Hsien Loong declared that while the traditional or mainstream media is “reliable, verified and insightful”, the new media is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” which are “not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation”.

The truth is that while there is a fair share of inflammatory opinions out in blogosphere—terrorist websites usually feature most prominently—the vast majority of blogs are just personal diaries, which cater to only a small network of the authors’ friends. Others are authored by writers who are earnestly trying to present balanced, truthful and responsible opinions.

A Code of Ethics, which could incorporate journalism ethics and standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability, would go some way in convincing not just ruling party politicians, but also the mainstream media-reading population that blogs are not as full of nonsense as they have been conditioned to believe.

Conclusion

While a bloggers’ association is an idea that could be KIV’ed for the future, an informal Singaporean bloggers’ Code of Ethics may not be as far fetched and draconian a measure as some of my fellow bloggers think. There are strong benefits in coming up with such a Code, but it will only be realisable with the strong support of the majority of blogosphere.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

16 thoughts on “In support of a bloggers’ Code of Ethics – Part 2”

  1. i applaud the idea and the effort. but i truly think it will not work. If one wants to blog, just do it.

    if you worry about crossing OB markers, then think twice, three times before you blog. think about what you want to say and how it impacts your readers.

    Otherwise, just say what you want to say.

    this Code of Ethis and Pledging…its just too..”establishment”. with due respect, you beginning to sound like a Singapore govt official.

    aygee

  2. Will this proposed code of ethics be manipulated by the invisible hand of the government to further restrict the bloggers? Will they create more blogger’s version of OB markers? How do we know that they will not be involved in the control of the blogosphere?

    Creating a code of ethics/conduct is the starting point of “fixing”. The key is how we educate each other on the right way in blogging about sensitive issues and not use one sheet of text to tell how to think.

    This whole thing was not initiated by the local blogger community but by an outsider. How, in the world, do “smart” bloggers get manipulated by this guy? Please think carefully. Are you being used by the government? This is exactly what they want: choas from within.

    Please do not become a tool for the government.

    not_regulated

  3. Hi aygee and not_regulated,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If I could reflect back your points, what you are both saying is that a Code could end up being a way for the govt to exercise control over blogosphere and is therefore undesirable.

    I feel on the other hand that it is a way of exercising our independence from the govt. If we can be a self regulating community (albeit in a non-coercive way), it would give less reasons for the govt to step in to ‘choh-choh’ us.

    We should be under no illusions that if the govt really wants to crack down on us, they can and there’s nothing we can do about it. The Internet can be regulated, as China has proven. All it’ll take will be for some errant bloggers to break the law, resulting in an official crackdown on all of blogosphere. For example, in response to just 3 racist bloggers, MHA now wants to amend the Penal Code to give it more prosecution options.

    not_regulated – Are you referring to Yadav as the outsider? I believe he is a Singaporean, no?

  4. Hi Gerald,
    I will not be signing up for any “code of conduct” or self-regulation ( or whatever one may call it).
    My views are clear and have been expressed in my blog.
    Give a Singaporean a rope and he will tie himself up!

    Merry Christmas,

    Dr.Huang

  5. Hi Dr Huang,

    Hahaha…:) I don’t think I can convince you any other way! :) We shall agree to disagree. But just know that I share your ideal of maintaining free speech in blogosphere.

    Have a blessed Christmas!

    cheers,
    Gerald

  6. Yes, the government can control the blogosphere but the fact is that they aer “fixing” it, the subtle suggestion of the code of conduct is a way coming from behind. You will be providing the fuel.

    One question: what happens when a “non-compliant” blogger writes a comment in your “compliant” blog?

    Are you suggesting that “non-compliant” bloggers should not be taken seriously because they do not have the stamp of approval?

    It sounds so like ISO-standards.

    On the other issue: Has he expressed a view on your blog or other critical blogs? I believe he likes happiness. He already said that he may not be right on everything but he welcomes other views. He has blogs.

    I say no too. Thank you.

    Merry Christmas

    not_regulated

  7. not_regulated,

    ==> One question: what happens when a “non-compliant” blogger writes a comment in your “compliant” blog?

    If it’s inflammatory and illegal, I’ll delete it, just like I indicated in the section on the right panel. Alas, I have not had the “pleasure” of doing that since I started blogging. :P

    ==> Are you suggesting that “non-compliant” bloggers should not be taken seriously because they do not have the stamp of approval?

    That never occurred to me, but I guess we do have to take into account the feelings of those who are on the other side of the self-regulation debate. But look at it this way: does it mean that just because a company does not have ISO 9001 certification, that company makes lousy products or has lousy work processes?

    For the record, I don’t know Yadav and have never communicated with him about this issue…just in case some conspiracy theorists think this is all part of some grand govt scheme to clamp down on bloggers. I’m just a naïve blogger taking things at face value and expressing my own view.

    Okay, the score is now “O” for 3. ;)

    G.

  8. If the govt wants to regulate the blogosphere, let it go on and do it. “Nature will find a way…” as the saying goes.

    We shouldn’t be doing it ourselves. Say what you want to say. If you dont behave responsibly as a blogger, somehow or other, you will get to know it.

    Why sign up a “Pledge” saying “Yes, we will behave”. With due respect, it sounds sad. “Yes, daddy, i will behave. And if i behave, will you let me play outside?”

    Guess i said my piece. look forward to your next post, Gerald. Merry Xmas.

    Aygee

  9. Gerald

    It wasnt D.Yadav who first suggested this idea. It was the guy called darkness bambie boy aka bambie bad boy.

    I think one of their main concerns is our gahmen will begin taking an unhealthy interest in cyberspace.

    That I think was their real motivation for advocating self regulation by adopting a code of conduct.

    Many thanks

  10. pirannahpride – thanks for pointing that out. I wasn’t aware of it. For the benefit of other readers, I Googled and found it at this.

    Aygee – I think “Yes, daddy, i will behave. And if i behave, will you let me play outside?” is one good way of putting it. :)

    You’re probably aware, however, that most news organisations, including Al Jazeera have their own Code of Ethics that they claim to abide by. I visited the Al Jazeera HQ in Doha last year, and the PR guide there was very keen on emphasising that to us. He even gave us a copy of the Code to take home. I would think that their main motivation is to portray themselves as a credible news organisation.

    Since the opposition to a Singapore blogosphere-wide Code is too strong, perhaps I’ll just draft out a code for my own blog, and hope that some other bloggers will also consider following suit with their own code.

  11. Why the hell should there be any OB marker at all in the first place??
    OB markers are nothing but an artificial construct of a regime to deflect criticism for any wrong doing…

    If they suddenly decided to start shooting political opponents and enact an OB marker against discussing this … are you going to stick to their OB markers subserviently? Or will you stick it to them?????

    Seriously, you can blog accordingly to what ever framework you like but for our sake, set the frame work your self. Dun stick to a moving goal post and stop dancing to the pipers tune. You never know whats going to the OB marker tomorrow.

  12. sapmme – I can understand your passion for press freedom, which I share. I guess we take different perspectives of this “piper”. You say, “stop dancing to the piper’s tune”. I don’t always enjoy the piper’s music, but I am tempered with the reality that this piper carries more than just his flute. He also carries a big stick which he has not hesitated to use on other musicians who play a different tune LOUDER than his.

    Thanks for your comment.

  13. Gerald,

    What you propose is a world where might makes right, where the strong is the law and the weak the meat. That we should all bow down to tyranny, morality and justice holds no meanings but pretty words to make palatable the lies.

    A cold dark place indeed.
    I for one, cannot acquiesce to your vision for Singapore.

  14. Hi sapmme,

    Sorry for the late reply.

    I didn’t say “might is right”. But the overwhelming might of the present govt and their discretionary power is a fact of life (at least for now). We can stand up with all our bravado and thumb our noses at them, but ultimately they can steamroll over us if it so pleaseth them.

    This is certainly not my “vision for Singapore” as you put it. I too hope to see a more pluralistic society with a free and open media. It’s a journey that we have to all take step by step. To quote mrbrown’s slogan, “Remember, prison got no broadband”.

  15. I agree with self-regulation, and I think that self-regulation should not be confused with censorship. Self-regulation is important, otherwise people will take advantage of the ‘lawlessness’ of the Internet and get away with spreading extremist views, and slandering online.

    In the US, a blogger was officially charged for libel cos’ he wrote some false claims about his client in his blog. It was reported in the Straits Times this year, though I forgot the exact issue. As can be seen, this isn’t really about the gahmen trying to extend its muzzle to the blogosphere.

    Bloggers all over the world are already practising ‘regulation’ by removing, or claiming to remove comments that contain disrespectful or illegal content. So I don’t see why some of these bloggers are uptight about it.

    The blogosphere shouldn’t be policed, but bloggers should make it a point to know what constitutes an offense and what they shouldn’t post to break the law. If they toe the line, then some good soul who come across the offensive blogs should report them and they should be penalized. If there are no regulations at all, cynics will always be, well, cynical about the blogosphere.

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