18 Aug 2005

Internet Filtering in Singapore in 2004-2005: A Country Study

Before you read, there is a shorter journalistic piece below covering the release of this material by OpenNetInitiative. So if you are currently suffering from a low attention span, scroll down to the next article where you can read very small extracts.

Below is a short extract for my own use. The links that show in detail the references used have been removed, as I do not have enough time. The entire document includes information on methodology, data analysis etc. For those of you not interested in the methodological details I have included here the main argument and details of how the internet is controlled in Singapore. I do however believe they have missed one very important method of controlling the internet. A method of control that can not be explicated when using the methods the OpenNetIniative have employed.


The Republic of Singapore is an economic leader in Southeast Asia, with a vibrant information and communications technologies sector; however, the state maintains strong formal and informal controls over the information to which its citizens have access.Singapore’s official position is that the state filters Internet content to promote social values and maintain national unity,with the goal of denying access to objectionable material, especially pornography and content encouraging ethnic or religious strife. The Media Development Authority (MDA) claims to block only a symbolic list of 100 Web sites (primarily pornography) as a symbol of the state’s disapproval of this content. In addition, the MDA encourages, and each of Singapore’s three primary Internet Service Providers offers, optional, filtered Internet access services that block additional sites for a minimal monthly fee.

In our testing, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI)found extremely minimal filtering of Internet content in Singapore, as only eight sites of 1,632 tested (.49%) were blocked: www.cannabis.com, www.chick.com, www.formatureaudiencesonly.com, www.penthouse.com, www.persiankitty.com, www.playboy.com, www.playgirl.com, and www.sex.com. The limited blocking that our testing revealed focuses on a few pornographic URLs and one site each in the categories of illegal drugs and fanatical religion. Similar content is readily available at other sites on the Internet that are not blocked in Singapore. Thus, Singapore’s Internet content regulation depends primarily on access controls (such as requiring political sites to register for a license) and legal pressures (such as defamation lawsuits and the threat of imprisonment) to prevent people from posting objectionable content rather than technological methods to block it. Compared to other countries that implement mandatory filtering regimes that ONI has studied closely, Singapore’s technical filtering system is one of the most limited.


A. Internet Infrastructure and Access

Singapore restricts media coverage of topics both formally and informally. According to a recent censorship review by a government-appointed committee, access should be denied to content that “undermines public order and the nation’s security, denigrates race and religion, or erodes moral values.”In evaluating moral values, the committee defined as “clearly immoral and demeaning” content that includes “pornography, deviant sexual practices, sexual violence, child pornography, [and] bestiality.”It noted, though, a range of opinion in Singapore on “violence, nudity and homosexuality,”recommending in particular that the ban on homosexual content be eased.(This may be because Singapore has become a hub for gay culture in Asia.The first category, protecting public order and national security, is quite vague; dissidents allege that the state has used similar language in its Internal Security Act to deter political protest and hinder opposition parties.Defamation lawsuits against dissidents and news organizations are also used as a method of control.Singapore views discussion of religious and ethnic issues as risky given the background of its population; these topics must be approached carefully in public discourse.The state is also concerned about Islamic extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiah.

B. Internet Infrastructure and Access

Singapore has achieved tremendous Internet penetration. In 2002, 61% of the population of Singapore had access to the Internet from home, work, or cybercaf√©s.Three firms provide Internet access for most of the state’s 2.31 million subscribers: StarHub, SingTel’s SingNet, and Pacific Internet.While all three Internet Service Providers are public entities, the government was the majority shareholder in each as of April 2001.Whether a viable independent Internet access provider is possible in Singapore remains in question.

C. General Media Regulation

Singapore lacks a free and independent press. According to one group of observers at the University of Hong Kong, the Singapore media is used as a “semi-official bridge between the government and the public.”The University of Hong Kong report found overwhelming evidence that the state owns an equity stake in the press and broadcast conglomerates it supports.Singapore fiercely criticized a report by Reporters Sans Fronti√®res, which ranked the state at 147th in its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index — by far the lowest ranking of any wealthy, developed nation.The committee chartered with reviewing Singapore’s censorship laws urged the state to reduce censorship in June 2003, and the state has accepted the committee’s recommendations. Formal action to control content is frequent; Singapore recently imposed sanctions on a radio station for broadcasting sexual content and on a print journalist for reporting on a foreign trip by the former prime minister’s wife for medical treatment.

Media ownership is carefully monitored by the government, which exerts influence over content through investment and informal ties. Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a company with close ties to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), controls all of Singapore’s daily newspapers.The Media Corporation of Singapore (Mediacorp), which is owned by a state investment agency and controlled by PAP supporters, dominates the broadcasting media.Mediacorp and SPH merged partially in late 2004, reducing greatly media competition in newspapers and television.

Formally, the Media Development Authority (MDA), which was created on Jan. 1, 2003 (formerly the Singapore Broadcasting Authority), is the agency responsible for media regulation. The MDA’s primary authority derives from the Media Development Authority of Singapore Actthat established it; however, other laws, notably those relating to pornography and election material, have been applied to the Internet and users. Overall, the state influences newspaper editorial decisions through its links to the SPH,and television programming is controlled and censored by the MDA.

An important, informal means of media control in Singapore is the use of lawsuits under the state’s stringent defamation laws.Defamation suits in Singapore are a common tactic for controlling speech, especially that related to Singapore’s government and politics; defendants who lose such suits often face hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability.There have been repeated allegations that judges in political defamation cases are linked to – and favor – government officials.Self-censorship by the media is common since the standard of proof in a defamation suit is easily met -- the burden rests upon the defendant to prove the truth of the statements (absent a claim of privilege, which is quite limited in scope) by substantial evidence, without the benefit of a jury trial.Thus, “The law of defamation presumes that defamatory words are false and the plaintiff need do no more than prove that the defamatory words have been published by the defendant. The burden is then on the defendant, if he wishes to rely on the defence of justification, to prove that those words are true.”The United States Department of State has condemned the scope and effect of Singapore’s defamation laws, stating that “government pressure to conform resulted in the practice of self censorship… [law]suits, which have consistently been decided in favor of government plaintiffs, chilled political speech and action and created a perception that the ruling party used the judicial system for political purposes.”

A recent example that demonstrates the reach of these laws, and their effects on Internet communication, targeted a blogger studying at the University of Illinois. Jiahoa Chen, a Singapore citizen, was forced to shut down his blog “caustic.soda”(hosted on the university’s server) under threat of a defamation lawsuit from A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology, and Research), a state-funded agency that provides scholarships to Singaporeans studying abroad in return for a commitment to public service after graduation.Chen broke his contractual agreement with A*STAR and had to repay his scholarship to the agency.Subsequently, he criticized A*STAR in an interview with Singapore’s The Electric New Paper and also on his blog. Chen stated that A*STAR treats its students “merely [as] a human resource”and that the agency’s recently instituted 3.8 grade point average requirement for maintaining scholarship funding was “unnecessarily draconian and counterproductive.”Shortly thereafter, A*STAR chairman Philip Yeo sent a series of e-mail messages to Chen threatening legal action and demanding the immediate removal of the blog.Under the threat of a defamation suit, Chen closed his blog, issuing a statement that “the price of maintaining the content that used to be available at this URL has become too high for the author to afford.”Following continued pressure from Yeo and A*STAR, Chen later posted a more explicit apology that reads, “I admit and acknowledge that these statements are false and completely without any foundation. I unreservedly apologize to A*STAR, its Chairman Mr. Philip Yeo, and its executive officers for the distress and embarrassment caused to them by these statements.”Chen’s case reinforces the power of Singapore’s defamation laws to alter Internet content and has led other Singaporean bloggers to write more cautiously.

D. Internet Access Regulation

The Singapore Broadcasting Act requires Internet access service providers (IASPs), political parties, Internet service resellers (ISRs), Internet Content Providers (ICPs), and entities with Web sites related to political or religious topics to register with the MDA under a class license scheme.Under the law, both service and content providersare required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice, which “outlines what the community regards as offensive or harmful to Singapore’s racial and religious harmony.”Political parties, religious groups, or individuals discussing these topics on their Web sites must “provide the [MDA] with such particulars and undertakings as the Authority may require”.ISPs (comprising ISRs and IASPs) must conform to terms of the Class Licensethat mandate enforcing compliance with the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice.In addition, the license requires that sites providing material about or hosting discussions regarding politicalor religious topics register with the MDA and conform to MDA requests regarding that content.Thus, Singapore has erected barriers to creating Internet content that augment its regulations for content itself.

E. Internet Content Regulation

Singapore has regulated Internet content since 1996.The state claims to use a “light-touch” approach to regulation.The primary legal instrument establishing control over access to Internet content is the Broadcasting Act. Under the Act, the MDA has authority to require the blocking of specific external sites or domains and to mandate the removal or moderation of “objectionable” content hosted by service or content providers. The MDA’s Internet Code of Practice defines prohibited content, which ISPs must block, as that which depicts nudity in a titillating fashion; promotes sexual violence; shows people engaged in explicit sexual activity; advocates homosexuality or lesbianism; shows sexual activity by a person who is or appears to be less than 16 years old; depicts incest, bestiality, pedophilia, or necrophilia; depicts extreme violence or cruelty; or “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.”In practice, the MDA claims to have established a “symbolic” list of 100 sites that are officially blocked; persons attempting to view any site on this list will be informed that the site in question is blocked.The MDA states these sites are primarily well-known pornographic domains.As discussed below, ONI’s testing calls this statement into question; we found only eight sites filtered at any point in our testing, including one illegal drugs site and one site devoted to Christian evangelism.

The MDA can issue penalties for violations, including fines or a license suspension or termination for non-compliance. Corporate Internet access is exempt from the requirement to block these 100 sites prohibited under the MDA Class License.The MDA has encouraged ISPs to develop and offer Family Access Networks that filter out pornographic and other objectionable Web sites for an additional fee; fees for this service were roughly $3 Singapore per month in July 2005 The government has encouraged the development of a ratings system and filtering software but has not yet publicly announced the adoption or endorsement of any such system or software.

In addition to explicit attempts to block pornography, hate speech, and similar content, the MDA’s predecessor (the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, or SBA) was accused by members of the political opposition of using its authority to disrupt the PAP’s political opponents and to suppress dissent.For example, during the 2001 parliamentary elections, the SBA was accused of selectively applying electoral laws to registered opposition Web sites.The SBA was also criticized for its treatment of fateha.com, a Muslim site that protested the ban on Muslim students wearing head scarves. In addition, the Computer Misuse Act and e-commerce legislation adopted in 1998 give Singapore’s police wide powers to seize and search computers without a warrant and to decrypt online messages.

The Internet Code of Practice does not provide for any restrictions or penalties imposed on users; however, violation of other laws, such as those banning possession of pornography, may subject an Internet user to criminal penalties. In addition, the government has been accused of manufacturing charges against political dissidents and of monitoring the Internet use of suspected dissidents; the Computer Misuse Act and similar legislation have greatly increased the government’s authority to monitor and decrypt Internet content. Even if few such charges are filed, the threat thereof may serve to deter political opposition in Singapore.

In addition to filtering that occurs under the mandates of the MDA, other providers of Internet access (such as universities) implement blocking of sites as well. Like the MDA, these providers generally do not reveal which sites are blocked or the precise rationale for filtering the sites to which access is prevented.

Related Links:
The entire document can be found at Opennetinitiative.
PDF version available here.
U.S. Newswire


Anonymous said...

They must well filter out on pornograhy website than those political website that voice out against the government in Singapore. Or else we will be spolit on it and addicted to it!!!!!!!! PAP please do something to this now!!!!!!

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