I attended the Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform at URA Centre this afternoon. The seminar was kindly sponsored and organised by NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications, together with “Bloggers 13” — the 13 bloggers who submitted the Proposals for Internet freedom in Singapore to the MICA Minister exactly two months ago. Special thanks must go to Dr Cherian George, who mooted the idea for this seminar and Alex Au and Choo Zheng Xi who put it all together.
I was quite glad that many members of civil society, academia and bloggers turned up to support the event. Also present were Mr Cheong Yip Seng, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), and members of the press.
After presentations explaining the proposals, the floor was opened for Q&A.
It seemed that the subject that caught the most interest was our proposal to establish an Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3). This is the section of our proposal where we mentioned the IC3:
2.3 Community moderation instead of formal regulation
We believe that almost all of society’s legitimate concerns about the abuse of free speech can be addressed outside the formal regulatory system. Online communities have already evolved sophisticated norms of informal self-regulation.
Internet forums are almost always moderated; bloggers keep an eye over readers’ comments appended to their posts. Popular sites heavy with pictorial or video content, such as YouTube, have their own rules forbidding salacious material.
With the evolution of new technology and social practices of netizens, it is neither practical nor is there need for the state to play the role of a master moderator. Legislation and state intervention, except in extremis, do not provide the best solution in dealing with the emerging complexities of the Internet.
The Internet is a social space, and social norms of leeway and consideration are constantly shifting. Although we have faith that these norms will evolve in pro-social directions, we agree that this won’t happen without some concerted effort. What is needed is a process through which online communities are represented in Singapore’s search for the right balance between individual freedoms and social goals.
One possible approach is to organise an Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) comprising one-third independent content providers, one-third persons familiar with rapidly evolving digital technologies, and one-third regular consumers of Internet content (i.e. regular surfers). The IC3 would issue recommendations whenever controversies arise regarding digital content, for example offering its view when conflicts arise between the state and content providers alleged to have behaved irresponsibly.
The IC3’s deliberations should be open to public view – and digital technology can be harnessed to this goal. The objective over time is to subject more and more so-called “sensitive” areas to public reason, replacing intervention by the state (whether heavy handed or light touch) with people’s own capacities for discernment and judgement. The only viable long term response to the impracticality of internet censorship is to help Singapore mature as a society, online as well as offline.
I think this is something that requires more discussion, and probably another paper fleshing out details of this proposal.
The libertarians amongst my fellow bloggers will question why there is even a need to have an IC3, when what we should be calling for is total freedom on the Internet.
I do not believe that this is practicable. In any community, there are bound to be those who contravine generally accepted rules and codes of conduct. At stake also is the racial and religious harmony of our state, and the protection of minors from undesirable content on the Internet.
I am persuaded that the government will make no move towards acceding to our requests like repealing the Films Act, Section 33 (party political films) and 35 (films contrary to public interest) until every last fuddy duddy there is convinced that the community is able to self-regulate. IC3, therefore, could fill in this gap to allow the government to cede this space to citizens.
A point of debate during our seminar was about who would appoint the IC3. Should it be the government or civil society? At stake is the credibility and sustainability of the IC3.
As a member of the Films Appeal Committee, I am well aware of the strengths and limitations of government-appointed committees.
For the IC3, I feel it would be ideal if it were a citizen-established committee which receives no funding from the government. The members of the committee could include representatives from blogosphere, educators, academics, media, and the government. The chairman of the committee should be elected by fellow members on a regular basis.
There is still much more to discuss regarding this proposal. We would very much want to involve the wider Internet community in this. Suggestions are most welcome!