Suddenly though the talk of 'lighter touch' seems like a load of rubbish.
Pub Date: Jun 17, 2006 Pub: ST Page: S8
Headline: From light to lighter, to no touch?
By: Sim Chi Yin and Elgin Toh
The May 2006 election has been dubbed Singapore's first Internet election', with reports, photos and videos of the election posted online. The Government has since pledged to consider a lighter touch' on regulating the Net. Sim Chi Yin and Elgin Toh report on how regulators have played catch-up with technology when it comes to regulating the Internet
FOR nine days in late April and early May, teacher Cai Guanghui was glued to his computer almost every night.
With a few clicks of his mouse, the rousing speeches and blurry video images of Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang filtered into his bedroom.
Like many Internet-savvy Singaporeans, Mr Cai, 30, was struck by the General Election fever ablaze on the Web.
About 50 websites and blogs had 'political' or 'semi-political' content during the election, according to a recent report by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
A handful also offered photographs, and video and audio clips (vodcasts and podcasts, in Netspeak) of election rallies - almost all posted anonymously.
This was despite the Government's pre-election statements that 'persistently', political sites or blogs would be asked to register with the authorities.
Despite the plethora of audio and video clips of opposition rallies during the election, no blogger was asked to stop, although the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was ordered to remove a podcast on its website.
Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Lee Boon Yang noted recently that the already 'light-touch approach' adopted at this election may evolve to an even 'lighter touch' by the next election.
SINCE Internet regulations were introduced almost exactly 10 years ago in July 1996, a 'light touch' has been the favoured approach.
The 'class licence' scheme was introduced in 1996, together with a Code of Practice. These allow regulators to ask operators of 'political' or religious websites to get registered.
Then, the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) was amended in 2001 to allow candidates and parties to use the Internet for election advertising for the first time.
While the laws are on the books, they have rarely been enforced and have more impact as a deterrent measure. Mr Colin Goh, who runs the popular satire site TalkingCock.com, said: 'Like most laws, the regulations hang over our head like the Sword of Damocles. One never knows when the guillotine will fall because they can be interpreted and enforced to suit particular ends.'
One example was before the 2001 election, when leading political discussion website Sintercom was asked to register as a political website. Founder Tan Chong Kee chose to shut it down instead.
Another instance of the Sword of the Law descending on netizens was last year when the State invoked the Sedition Act and successfully prosecuted three young bloggers for racist comments.
While rare, each occurrence of State enforcement had a chilling effect on netizens, note observers.
GE2006: The tide turns
BUT things changed at this election. In April, a month before the election, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan sent out a caution that cyberspace activities are being watched.
Websites or blogs which 'persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore' will be required to register. Once registered, they cannot engage in any election advertising, defined as having material that support a candidate or party. The pronouncement caused initial confusion - and then was ignored.
Candidates like the WP's Mr Goh Meng Seng did stop posting on his personal blog(Singapore Alternatives) during the GE. But his WP compatriot James Gomez did not. The blog that he runs, together with other contributors, continued to post entries during the GE.
Other man-in-the-street bloggers continued to write on politics – though some chose to go underground, or become anonymous, to avoid detection.
The implicit defiance of Mica's pronouncement against 'political' blogs and content was made possible with technology. Digital cameras, phones with video-recording functions and free online video sharing services like YouTube made it easy for people to upload and distribute material quickly – and anonymously, noted IPS senior research fellow Tan Tarn How in a recent paper.
Blogosphere, which did not figure in the last election, was a hive of activity this time, leading former newspaper editor Seah Chiang Nee (www.littlespeck.com) to term this 'Singapore's first Internet elections'.
The number of daily blog postings on 'Singapore election' jumped 11 times: from 18 before the Writ of Election was issued on April 20 to about 200 at the peak of the campaign (between April 28 to polling day on May 6), according to local website tracking firm NexLabs.
Just what impact did those podcasts and videocasts have on the election? An audio spoof of the James Gomez issue has been downloaded 110,000 times since it was posted on May 1, with one-third of that downloaded in the first three days. But some commentators think the impact was indirect, via the competitive pressure such sites exerted on the mainstream media.
Several people interviewed note that newspapers published pictures of huge opposition rally crowds days after businessman Alex Au first posted them on his popular website, yawningbread.org.
Still, even with gaps in coverage, the mainstream media (newspapers and television) ranked higher than the Internet as a source of influence on the vote in an IPS study, notes Mr Tan.
The case for regulation
DESPITE its limited impact, the Government makes the case that regulation of the Internet - especially of political content online - is necessary.
It has probably got one eye on the post-65ers who already made up 40 per cent of voters in this GE - and who are more likely to be influenced by what they hear and see online, said Mr Tan.
There is also a need, the Government argues, to 'safeguard the seriousness of the electoral process' and not let politics descend to the level of entertainment, with 'unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumours and distortions to mislead and confuse the public', said Dr Balaji in April.
Vodcasts and podcasts have 'greater power to influence', putting them in the same category as party political films and videos, argued Dr Lee. The Government has to take a 'cautious approach' because 'anyone, anywhere can blog anything, anyhow'.
Despite the discomfort with exuberant online political content, the Government said recently that 'moving forward, we will consider how to better embrace these changes so that by the next GE, we may be able to adopt a lighter-touch approach during the election period'.
Litigation lawyer Adrian Tan is not surprised, pointing out there is no other option. 'It is a fundamental mistake to react to new technology by banning it ... The World Wide Web is so vast, our resources are so limited. There cannot be any future in heavy-handed policing.'
The best way
BUT it is not clear yet what this 'lighter touch' might mean.
Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) School of Communication and Information dean Ang Peng Hwa suggests lifting the ban on political parties' use of video and audio casts on their own websites during elections as a first step.
For individual netizens, more clarity on what 'persistently' political means might help ease jitters, he argued.
Mr Au says no regulation is the best rule of thumb: 'There is nothing special about this medium that traditional laws of libel, hate speech and so on can't take care of.'
Mr Tan, while welcoming the 'lighter touch', added: 'It would be even better for the Government to get rid of the arsenal of legal big sticks' it has acquired in the last decade and adopt a no-touch approach ... We must trust people to be able to decide what is true, and what is not.'
Netizens also say there is no need for the State to step in, as the Net has a 'self-regulating' mechanism - misguided information will be shouted down by others online, as NTU media lecturer Cherian George noted in a recent vodcast interview with the Straits Times Online Mobile Print (Stomp).
Intellectual property rights lawyer Cyril Chua adds that draconian laws will not work but will simply drive Net users into anonymity or other forms of subterfuge.
But the practical difficulties of policing the Web should not be the reason for no regulations, argues Associate Professor Ang, who notes that the Government has already shown that it can go after individual bloggers by prosecuting the three bloggers for racist comments.
As many commentators point out, the traditional power structure which privileges the State over the citizen, is topsy-turvy in cyberspace. As a result, regulators have to engage 'in a process of negotiation with online producers' and are not in a position of 'authority from which they are 'managing us', says research student Steven McDermott, a one-time resident herewho now runs singabloodypore.blogspot.com out of Scotland.
As even Dr Lee Boon Yang has acknowledged, regulators too have to 'feel our way forward'.
Will light touch evolve to lighter and eventually no touch? The truth is that as technology advances, the State will have less leverage to count on in its dealings with netizens. As the last 10 years shows, the trend has been towards a more liberal approach to regulating the Internet.
That being the case, the State might want to make a virtue out of necessity. Rather than change late, and reluctantly, it could be more pro-active in engaging netizens and get their support by relaxing rules early.
How fast will the 'lighter touch' approach materialise? Netizens will be watching.
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