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.