Internet controls not just about blocking sites, says report
U.S. researchers say the government achieves cyber control using threats of defamation lawsuits more often than Internet filters
By Christine Chiao
AsiaMedia Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005
Researchers from Harvard, Cambridge, and the University of Toronto say Internet censorship in Singapore goes beyond high-tech filtering software. Censorship of the web, they say, is instead achieved by strict libel and defamation laws.
An Aug. 17 OpenNet Initiative (ONI) report, "Internet Filtering in Singapore in 2004-2005," examines the methods by which the Singaporean government establishes cyber control over its netizens. According to the report, the state telecommunications department, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), uses a rigid, complex legal system to maintain the government's standard of decency. In 2003, the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts released a broad definition of indecency as anything that poses a threat to national security, moral values, any religious or ethnic group.
Derek Bambauer, part of the ONI research team and a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society of Harvard Law School, notes via e-mail, "While the number of sites required to be blocked by Singapore is much lower than in other states ONI has examined, it is clear that the combination of legal and technical controls can still restrict certain types of content significantly."
In a separate study, ONI noted the efficacy of China's Internet filtering system, widely considered one of the most comprehensive and technologically advanced in the world. In contrast with the Chinese government, Singapore officials implement little technical filtering to block undesirable sites. They rely instead on looming threats of defamation lawsuits or imprisonment. The results reveal the complexity of Internet regulation, highlighting the interconnection between legal and technological practices.
"ONI finds that most states employ a mixture of legal and technical regulation to control online content. Legal methods are often used to encourage or frighten citizens into censoring their expression preemptively. These two methods overlap and reinforce each other," explains Bambauer.
A May 7 Straits Times article notes one case involving Singaporean blogger Jiahao Chen. Chen, a former government researcher and graduate student in the United States, was contacted by A*STAR about a Mar. 3 posting on his Caustic Soda blog. A*STAR said his comments constituted defamation against the agency's chief Philip Yeo. Facing legal consequences, Chen, known online as AcidFlask, issued a public apology, shut down his blog and promised to avoid making similar statements in the future.
When Singapore does regulate the web by blocking sites it deems offensive, it depends on Internet service providers (ISPs). The Singapore Broadcasting Act requires ISPs, content providers, as well as political and religious organizations with websites to register and obtain a license from the government to operate online. The nation also uses hardware and software created by American companies such as Secure Computing, Websense and Cisco to regulate site access, says Bambauer.
By using proxy servers outside Singapore and accessing the web from within the country itself, the researchers found that of 1,632 sites tested, eight sites were blocked. The report suggests that these blocked sites are meant as warnings for the 1.8 million Singaporeans who have access to the Internet. The sites that are blocked include content about illegal drugs, pornography and religious fanaticism.
"Filtering software is flexible; it can block access to pornographic and human rights sites with equal ease. This raises important, difficult questions about what responsibility information technology companies have regarding the use of these products," says Bambauer.
“The ONI report is missing stories and insight from those involved with the Internet and civil liberties. The report was a restatement of other reports and findings such as RSF [Reporters Withour Borders], AI [Amnesty International] and the Think Centre in Singapore,” says Steven McDermott , author of Singabloodypore, a blog that highlights sociopolitical issues in the nation. “I am sure their report adhered to certain requirements and constrictions to meet their particular needs, [but] knowledge of a subject requires multiple perspectives.”
Bambauer says, though, that ONI research is different from other reports precisely because it uses "quantitative testing and analysis." "Most other work on Internet filtering or censorship is anecdotal or qualitative; while such approaches can lend some insight, a quantitative methodology is essential to draw defensible conclusions," says Bambauer.
The ONI report's legal analysis is also significant, he says. "It is critically important to understand that Singapore’s laws regarding defamation place a relatively heavy burden on defendants, which leads to caution regarding on-line expression (particularly political expression). This background legal context helps non-Singaporeans understand the larger environment within which filtering operates."
France-based press freedom advocate Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Singapore as among the worst press freedom offenders in their 2004 report; out of 169 countries, Singapore is ranked at 147th in terms of press freedom.
Date Posted: 9/12/2005