AIMS report shows the way forward

The government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released its long awaited report this morning.

Firstly, I would like to publicly commend Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the AIMS committee and its secretariat for a very well-researched, well-thought through and balanced report, and for the very consultative approach they had taken throughout the past 18-months.

When I first heard about AIMS when it was first launched, I thought to myself, “That’s it, now the government is going to use this committee to justify their clamping down on the Internet.”

I’m glad AIMS has proven me wrong. Although I still feel they have been a tad too conservative politically, I think their proposals, particularly the ones on political content can be said to be “one small step for the government, one giant leap for Singapore”.

The AIMS report can be viewed at www.aims.org.sg. The committee proposed the eventual repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act, which bans party political films, and recommended tightened disclosure requirements for Section 35, which currently gives “the Minister” the right to ban any film that he deems to be against the public interest. This is a bold step forward, which I hope the Government will accept. In fact, I hope they go one step further to repeal both those laws.

The AIMS report also contained unedited letters from the public and corporations in response to its consultation paper. I was quite amused how many members of the public appeared to have overreacted to AIMS’ proposed liberalisations. Many letters focused on how liberalisation will lead to an erosion of morals.

Let me say that as a Christian, and a professed social conservative, I am the last one who would want to see any erosion of our nation’s moral fabric. However I agreed with AIMS that, with respect to the Internet, education will serve as a better safeguard of morals than regulation. The thrust of AIMS’ proposed liberalisations are actually in the political sphere. In this aspect, I am strongly in favour of liberalisation, because our country is lagging far behind our peers in the developed world.

It will take me a while to go through the 224 page report to give my comments. But in the meanwhile, the following is my feedback to AIMS’ consultation paper released a few months back. Since the final report is quite similar to the consultation paper, many of my comments still apply to this report.

————-

23 September 2008

Mr Cheong Yip Seng
Chairman
Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society

FEEDBACK TO AIMS’ CONSULTATION PAPER

1 On 29 August 2008, the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released a consultation paper to gather feedback from the public on its proposed recommendations to the Singapore Government on engaging new media.

2 This paper is my feedback to AIMS’ consultation paper. They are my personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of any groups or organisations that I am affiliated with.

3 The responses are grouped according to the chapters in AIMS’ consultation paper.

Chapter 1: E-engagement

4 There needs to be a paradigm shift in the Government’s thinking regarding e-engagement. As a general approach, instead of pouring money and resources into only building its own online platforms (e.g., REACH portal), where it tends to only preach to the choir, the Government should venture out to engage the “unconverted” on the latter’s turf. This was rightly pointed out in AIMS’ paper.

5 The Government may need to be selective about which areas it ventures into. The vast majority of bloggers who do not write about political issues would not appreciate it if a government official posts a comment “correcting” them for inaccuracies in their blog postings. However there are a few serious political bloggers who would appreciate a response to their ideas and suggestions, even if it comes in the form of a robust rebuttal from the Government.

6 Government representatives could respond by posting a comment on a blog post, or contributing full article response to the same blog. Serious blogs would be happy to grant the right of reply to the Government or any other party.

7 It would be preferred if politicians and government officials engage in their “personal” capacities — meaning there is no need to parade one’s full designations, titles and ministries when posting a simple comment on a blog. Blogosphere is an egalitarian society where the quality of one’s ideas counts more than the titles one carries.

8 Civil servants should be allowed to comment on policy matters outside the purview of their ministries, as long as they do so in their personal capacity and they do not divulge classified information. They should not be required to seek their permanent secretaries’ approval before speaking or writing to the media (including online media) on matters that does not directly concern their ministry.

9 The Information Ministry is already actively monitoring blogs and Internet forums. The Government should acknowledge some of the good ideas that are generated online, instead of constantly implying that serious political discussion is absent from the Internet.

10 E-engagement, if executed selectively and sensitively, could cause bloggers to be slightly more circumspect in expressing themselves on their blogs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Internet experts have highlighted that “people are more polite when they know you are listening” .

11 The Government should consider issuing press releases, releasing embargoed papers or speeches to citizen journalists, and inviting citizen journalists to cover press conferences and official events. Credible socio-political blogs could be issued press passes like the Malaysian government did for Malaysiakini and other online media.

12 This is a good way to encourage citizen journalists to firstly, report rather than simply comment from a distance; and secondly, to provide fairer and more balanced coverage.

13 Ministers and senior officials should not be reticent in granting interviews with credible online media if asked.

Chapter 2: Online Political Content

14 Section 33 of the Films Act, which bans “party political films” outright, is an ill-conceived and unnecessary law. Various arguments have been put forward by the Government in support of the law. Most centre around the possibility of a “freak election” result due to a “scurrilous” video being released a few days before Polling Day.

15 There is no evidence anywhere in the world of an freak election result simply due to a false and malicious video being released in the last few days of campaigning.

16 Any falsehoods or misrepresentations can be dealt with using the existing Penal Code, Sedition Act or Defamation Act. Furthermore, with its unfettered access to the mainstream media, the Government can easily refute any false allegations, even if they are made at the eleventh hour.

17 The goal of keeping election costs down can continue to be achieved by current election laws which limit the amount a candidate is allowed to spend on each voter.

18 In addition, the Parliamentary Elections Act could be amended to require any party political films to clearly state the sponsor of the video, as is required in the US, Australia and other developed countries. This will provide viewers a frame of reference to judge the partisan nature of the video.

19 Most importantly, we should not underestimate Singaporean voters’ ability to discern what is true and what is false and malicious.

20 AIMS has proposed a compromise “blackout period” whereby no new political videos can be released during the election period. A blackout period will take things back almost to square one. It will hamper political parties’ ability to communicate with the electorate during the most critical period when voters are making up their minds.

21 Even if there is a blackout period or if Section 33 remains on the statute books in its entirety, there is nothing stopping someone from uploading a “scurrilous” video to YouTube (or any of the dozens of video sharing sites). The fact that it is “prohibited content” would make it even more attractive to watch.

22 While I applaud AIMS’ attempt to push the boundaries by proposing a relook, and possible repeal of the law, I believe that anything short of a complete repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act would be disappointing to many thinking Singaporeans.

23 Separately, Section 35 of the Films Act (Minister may prohibit possession or distribution of any film) should be also be repealed. This is an omnibus law which gives the Minister absolute discretion in banning a film. If left in place, it would render any repeal of Section 33 meaningless. It should be noted that Section 15 (Prohibition and approval of films for exhibition) already empowers the Board of Film Censors to ban films.

24 I fully agree with AIMS recommendations regarding Internet election advertising and removal of the registration requirement in the Internet Class License Scheme.

25 In addition, election candidates and political parties should be allowed to solicit and accept donations over the Internet without overly stringent requirements to verify the identity of donors.

Chapter 3: Protection of Minors

26 Requiring ISPs to provide filtering in the form of Family Access Networks (FAN) on an opt-out basis is better than nothing. However FAN could give a false sense of security to parents who think that filtering provided by ISPs is going to filter out all undesirable content.

27 In fact, FAN cannot filter out a very large portion of undesirable content. At the same time, it could end up filtering content that the adults in the family may wish to view. For example, adults doing research on terrorism, drug abuse or gay issues could encounter blocked pages when using FAN.

28 It is much more effective to encourage parents to install Internet content filtering software on their home PCs . While PC-based filters do not filter out everything, they provides several advantages over FAN:

a. Access logging. Parents can view all the websites that their children access by checking the logs recorded by the software. If the child knows his parents are monitoring what he is surfing, he is much less likely to access sites he knows are out of bounds to him. Some software packages are able to email the daily log reports to parents.

b. Designating access time. Most filtering software allows parents to set the time in which the Internet can be accessed.

c. Auto lock out. The software can be configured to automatically block Internet access to the child if undesirable websites are accessed too many times.

d. Turning off filtering for adults. Parents (who have the password) can turn off filtering and logging so that they themselves can have full access to the Internet.

29 All this requires training for the parents. For parents who are IT savvy enough or are willing to learn, this provides the best method of regulating children’s access to the Internet and preventing them from accessing undesirable material.

30 For other non-IT savvy parents (who make up the vast majority of parents), there needs to be a concerted programme of parental education and awareness building.

Chapter 4: Intermediary Liabilities

31 I fully support AIMS recommendations in Chapter 4.

Summary

32 The following is a summary of my proposals:

a. Engage Netizens on their turf, not the Government’s.
b. Issue press passes and press releases to serious socio-political websites.
c. Allow civil servants to blog about policy issues.
d. Allow online political donations.
e. Completely repeal Sections 33 and 35 of the Films Act.
f. Encourage parents to install filtering software on their home PCs.
g. Educate parents on the use of such software.

33 I hope AIMS will consider these proposals in its final report to the Government

* * * * *

Submitted by:
Gerald Giam

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.