Behaving better online

Ang Peng Hwa

The author is the director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, Nanyang Technologcial University, and also the President of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society.

Censorship hinders the development of societal maturity

A code of conduct is needed for Internet content posted by Singaporeans – not to censor or filter contents, but to calman atmosphere turning hysterical.

In one week, three people have posted offensive content on the Internet. The first was a young People’s Action Party member who captioned a photograph with offensive text and has since resigned from the party; the second posted an offensive photo on Facebook; and the third posted an offensive image he said was intended to be a warning. The police are investigating all three.

On Nov 26, Straits Times writer Salim Osman ( “ Gap in multiracial message”) did not think an apology for such offensive content was enough : “Only legal prosecution under a tough Sedition Act and mandatory couselling for the offenders would serve as a deterrent against racist postings”

Mr Salim did not distinguish among the three even though one of them claimed to have been a whistleblower – an important fact, assuming it to be true.

Then came the ST editorial of Dec 2 (“Hate speech is not free speech”) : “The problem is that not every offensive posting might be grave enough to attract legal penalties, but could still be serious enough to harm, however imperceptibly, the climate of trust among the races and religions.“

If the harm is imperceptible, how can one say there was harm? Is there harm if no one can perceive it?

When facts are not clearly ascertained, and law are proposed to address the imperceptible, I think it is time to sit down and rethink the issue. Which is why I think the code for online conduct should be drafted now.

As I envisage it, the code would be a set of rules administered by the Media Development Authority (MDA) as content regulator. It, instead of the police, would handle complaints concerning hate speech and other offensive content. In line with the light-touch approach to Internet content regulation, the penalties should be relatively light; warnings and perhaps community service. Only in recalcitrant cases should the typical legal punishment of fines and jail be used.

The MDA has a system of using public inputs on its various committees and appeal panels, and a similar system should be used to draw up the rules and enforce them.

What should the code consider ?

To begin with, the proposed code of conduct needs to clarify “hate speech”. If the potential harm to the climate of trust is imperceptible, should the individual who promulgated it be punished ? Should an insult be enough to trigger action against the person who delieverd it ?

The code should minimise vagueness and uncertainty about what is outlawed. The drafters should clarify and minimise the use of out-of-bounds markers.

If interpretation is needed, there should be an opportunity for a content provided to obtain clearance from the regulator as to whether certain content would fall outside the rules.

One of the cases involved Facebook. This is private company with a privacy policy of 6,911 words. Facebook has changed its policy to what used to be private information has beocme public information. Users are alerted about thiese changes and expected to know the outcome. Should a user who had offensive content that used to be private but is now publicly posted be liable ?

A code is needed because some current laws have the unintended effect of discouraging moderation.

The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media in Society (Aims), of which I was a member of the working group, had recommended an overhaul of the law regarding intermediaries. The law currently exempts network providers such as SingTel, StarHub and M1 from liability for illegal content flowing through their pipes. But it does not exempt websites that host content posted by users.

The degree of liabiltiy then falls back to common sense and common law : The more one knows, the more one is culplable. Given this, it is better for content hosts to feign ignorance of the content. Trying to do something about it would indicate knowlege of the offensive content and increase liabilty.

The code should also encourage and not punish whistleblowing.

As the person who claimed to be a whistleblower has discovered, he is suspected of posting the material even though he claims he was out to warn others. Press reports say that the post by the young PAP member was found by one Noor Firdaus, who is presumably a Malay-Muslim. Mr Firdaus posted the offensive photo in several locations, including Facebook, and was commended for it. But the third person, a Chinese, who also claimed to be whistleblowing, is being investiaged.

There must be a distinction between advocating and reporting offensive content.

The intent is important. And intent should not be judged based on the person’ race and religon. It would be a sad day in Singapore if it is assumed that any non-Muslim commenting on Islam or any non-Christian commenting on Christianity must be up to no good.

The code should also specify the punishment. I recommend a graduated response beginning with a warning, perhaps counselling, before escalating to prosecution.

The Internet also includes rational Singaporeans, who should be encouraged to exercise discernment. My hope is that when the law comes in, the community at large does not “tune out”, as tends to happen in Singapore. If Singaporeans at large do not exercise discernment – because the police or the ministry dose it for them – that will truly be the begining of the slide down the slippery slope towards racial and religious strife.

This article was first published on Straits Times on 13 December 2011.