30 May 2013

Regulating Online News Sites — Losing The Online War

Any online news sites that, over a period of two months, (i) reports an average of at least one article per week on any programme (whether or not presenter-based and whether or not provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether or not at regular intervals), and (ii) is visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month will require an individual licence from Media Development Authority ("MDA").

Online news sites are currently automatically class-licensed under the Broadcasting Act.  From 1 June, when MDA assesses that a site meets the criteria to be individually licensed, MDA will issue a formal notification to the site.  Licensed online new sites have to post a performance bond of $50,000 and have to comply with MDA’s directions within 24 hours to remove content that is considered to be in breach of content standards.

Thinking Within The Box
MDA's rationale for licensing the online news sites is that it will place them on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed.

Instead of bringing the online news sites into the regulatory framework for the traditional news platforms, MDA could have maintained the status quo or, better still, achieved consistency by removing the individual licensing requirement altogether.
 
Existing Laws
The new licence will provide greater clarity on what constitutes prohibited content, e.g., soliciting for prostitution, undermining racial or religious harmony, or going against good taste.
 
There already are enough laws to address soliciting for prostitution, sedition, libel, contempt of court etc.
 
Is a new licensing regime needed to ensure good taste?

Is a new licensing regime needed to provide greater clarity?
 
Consultation
The new rules were crafted in consultation with the industry players.
 
Who was consulted?  How much of the feedback did MDA accept?

The Real Purpose I
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said that the new licence would not be more onerous than what the news websites had been subject to.
 
"Most of our online news sites are class-licensed... therefore, they are subjected to certain content criteria and so it’s not new. They are also subjected to Internet code of practice.

"Except now you have to be licensed on an annual basis and... we know who the editors are, we know the people responsible, and if there are some things we need to discuss, we know who (sic) to discuss with — so the most important thing is the... recognition that they are part of the reporting landscape."
 
The Real Purpose II
Dr Yaacob hinted that the rule may in the future apply to overseas news sites reporting on Singapore.
 
The Broadcasting Act will be amended next year, with the view of including overseas news sites reporting on Singapore.
 
Overseas news sites report on Singapore for the benefit of their readers who are interested in events in Singapore.  Many of such readers are foreign businessmen and women who, like Singapore readers, seek perspectives different from those offered by Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp.  Although Singapore readers are unlikely to account for a significant percentage of the target audience of overseas news sites, they may visit such sites in sufficient numbers to trigger a licence.  Will the overseas news sites accede to the licensing requirements?
 
The Real Purpose III
The initial list of 10 online news sites to be licensed seems innocuous enough and reassuring enough for some.  Only Yahoo does not belong to SPH or MediaCorp.
 
MDA gains nothing by licensing SPH's or MediaCorp's online news sites.  Is Yahoo the only target?  Unlikely.
 
Conclusion
It seems that the Government believes that it is losing, or has already lost, the battle for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans in the online arena, and is resorting to new licensing measures in a forlorn and futile effort.  It's such a pity because there are so many effective ways to engage the online community.

What can the Government do?

It should be humble and conduct itself as a servant of the people, not their master.

It should be humble and admit its mistakes as well as those of its parliamentarians.

It should listen to the concerns of the people with its heart, and address those concerns to the best of its ability.  The online criticism is the symptom, not the problem.  Regulating online criticism will not address the problems.  Regulating online news sites may result in the Government hearing more of what it wants to hear, and less of what it needs to hear.

And much more.

The Government knows what it must do.  Will it do what needs to be done or will it bury its head in the sand?
 
Footnote
How does MDA ascertain whether an online news site has been visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month?

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Notes

1. MEDIA DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY Fact Sheet — Online News Sites to be Placed on a More Consistent Licensing Framework as Traditional News Platforms 28 May 2013.

2. Websites with Local News Content to be Licensed TODAY 29 May 2013.

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