Leave the Internet be

Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim suggests two ways to ensure a “safe online environment for Singaporeans.” These are: encourage the online community to help develop an Internet code of conduct; and to promote through public education responsible behaviour on the Internet, targeting young people in particular.

On the surface, these sound good. After all, what is wrong in wanting a “safe environment”? And what is wrong with wanting young people to adopt “responsible behaviour” on the Internet? Nothing – except the methods which would be used and the reasons for wanting to do these.

I am not one for such coercion or control of people’s expression. I do recognise that there are those (people and instances) who do go overboard with criticisms and their actions online. I myself have been on the receiving end of these. Still, I am not in favour of having the online community devise a code of conduct. This is because such a code will be a meaningless endeavour and a waste of time and effort. It will be unenforceable, and ineffective. 

The thinking behind wanting such a code to control (yes, lets call a spade a spade) people’s ways of expressing themselves stems from a lack of understanding, or a misunderstanding, of what the Internet is all about – and about its nature. The Internet is a space where a cacophony of varied and diverse views are expressed. And guess what – this is how the Internet is meant and supposed to be. Yes, it is a different animal altogether from the sanitised and tightly-leashed mainstream channels which are at the government’s beck and call.

It is also interesting that the MICA minister wants the online community itself to come up with this code. The minister perhaps have forgotten that the online community (at least, a part of it) had indeed tried to do such a thing – with the “Bloggers 13″ initiative in 2008. The group’s main recommendation then were for “community moderation”, instead of having the government lay its heavy hand on bloggers and netizens.

But by and large, the initiative was stillborn. Except for a few early instances where “community moderation” was carried out (bloggers speaking up against other bloggers who were seen to have crossed the line), it was soon forgotten. This is not surprising, and I don’t blame the Bloggers 13 for trying. The experience only shows how difficult it is to moderate the Internet. The number of different voices and the variety of different views, with each practitioner having opinions and ways of expressing these different from the next person, and now with social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, makes it nigh impossible to keep everyone in line (which is what a code ultimately hopes to do).

There are already existing laws to deal with those who are seen to infringe certain acceptable societal norms and behaviour. We do not need any code on top of these. Those who want to use the Internet to create frictions or who want to use it for nefarious purposes will have to face the law – just as it is “in the real world”.

Those who are concerned about “irresponsible online behaviour” should:

1. Encourage more “moderate” voices to come online. This does not mean pro-establishment/pro-PAP/pro-government voices alone.

2. Set up a website to rebut falsehoods, much like what this Facebook page is doing. And also what Barack Obama did during the US elections of 2008 when lies were circulated about him.

3. Grow a thick hide and don’t jump at every instance of perceived injury.

4. The gov’t should have no business in controlling the Internet – except in specific instances where national security are concerned. Such as when the Internet is used to create enmity between the races and religions, or when one advocates violence against another.

5. The gov’t should allow a physical space for civil society to come together as I suggested in this article for Yahoo. Such a space, made affordable in terms of fees or rental, would also allow bloggers to organise their own forums to discuss issues, including online behaviour. This is not about control but about recognising that bloggers do play an important role in our society, going forward, and that such events are good for open interactions and engagements. Even the gov’t could use such a space.

I do, however, agree with the minister on cyber-bullying. It is a concern, definitely. The case of Priya Bala, a Singaporean teacher who was incessantly harassed by a man over an extended period of time, shows how vicious such bullying can be. But Priya’s case only shows how lax enforcement is – by the police. Her case is still “being investigated” by the police, even after such a long time (from what I understand). Now, who is to blame if perpetrators can get away with such behaviour?

If the authorities were concerned about making the online space safe for Singaporeans, as I am sure they are, then they should deal with cases like Priya’s more effectively and swiftly. The man who had been harassing her is still out there, probably feeling superior that he is getting away with his actions.

Trying to change behaviour is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, things to do. Just look at the courtesy campaign which was first introduced in the 70s. It’s now been re-named the Singapore Kindness Movement.

The Internet, and in particular, the blogosphere, is relatively young. It (the socio-political part of it) only came to its own in the last few years. And yes, it is very critical of the government but guess what – it is the same anywhere else. Perhaps the underlying issue here is that the Singapore government is one which is unfamiliar with criticisms and the nature of these. As with others on the Internet, therefore, I would urge the government to give itself time to acclimatise to the strange and new environment it finds itself in, online.

The worst thing it can do is to retreat to its old habits of wanting to control – even if, as the MICA minister suggests, this is done vicariously.

As for myself, I am a blogger. I am not a policeman.

It is not my job to tell others how they should behave, what they should speak, how they should speak it, or when they should speak.

And I would say, it is neither the government’s job to do so.

Lets not get into this mode of wanting to coerce or control everything. The expiry date for this sort of thinking has long passed.

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