The Straits Times (ST) is a favourite punching bag for many of us, especially online practitioners. And, truth be told, often it is well deserved. (My own personal, main beef with the paper is how it has shirked its responsibility as S’pore’s main broadsheet on the matter of the death penalty and the mandatory death penalty by not delving into the issues and give the public a deeper understanding of the laws and legal processes involved. It could do a special focus feature, and interview lawyers, activists, bloggers/citizen journalists, politicians, judges, etc and provide a platform for a national discussion.)
But lets be fair, there are good articles written by ST reporters or journalists from time to time.
And into this category of good articles is this one by Tessa Wong, published in the ST on 9 May 2012. She writes on the proposed code of conduct which some minister wants introduced for the Internet. I haven’t come across anyone – bloggers, social network users, academics and lecturers – who support such a call.
Anyway, Tessa’s piece echoes what I have been saying – leave the Internet be and give it time to evolve. The truth is that socio-political blogging, for example and especially, is at its very young stage on the blogosphere. It first came to the fore, I would say, around 2005/2006. Of course, prior to this, there were a few sites such as Sintercom, which paved the way for the blogs which would follow.
The last 5 years or so, the government has always tried to discredit the blogosphere. Articles in the mainstream media castigated netizens quite regularly. Awful terms were used on netizens and bloggers in particular. “Irrational”. “Irresponsible”. “Lunatic fringe”. “Cowboy towns.”
Back in 2007, the then Straits Times Political Editor even said: “Reading Internet postings often makes my blood boil.” [Mr Brown has archived the report for posterity here.] [I’d also written about how the government and media are demonising the Internet and bloggers here.]
On the other hand, praises were regularly and lavishly heaped on the mainstream media – by government ministers and the mainstream media themselves.
But netizens and bloggers stood their ground. The more such nonsensical accusations were directed at them, the more resolved they were to attack the government and the mainstream media. And they had the tools to do so.
After all this time, it has come to this stage – where the government realise that the Net is here to stay, bloggers are here to stay, the use of social networking tools are widespread. And technology will continue to advance and afford users new tools which increasingly governments will find hard to rein in.
And so, here we are – the government saying it is concerned about the way the Internet is progressing, or not progressing. The call for a code of conduct is a tentative step towards some sort of control – whether this is by the government or by others, including netizens. As I’d said before, it seems to be a knee jerk reaction to recent incidents online.
The call for a code of conduct or ethics has been rejected defiantly by netizens. And rightly so.
I’d like to see, as Tessa wrote, the Internet – and the blogosphere, especially – left alone to evolve, and to let it do so organically and naturally.
The fundamental mindset of the government must change, vis a vis online engagement, and how it views netizens and bloggers. Taking an antagonistic stance, as it has in the past, will get it nowhere.
“It [the government] cannot be the arbiter of cyberspace,” Tessa wrote, “but can wield its influence in a less intrusive way, for example by publicly encouraging the community whenever it pushes back against bad behaviour.”
That is indeed something the government can do, even though it would be a u-turn of sorts, from the days when it tried to do its best to show up the “irresponsibility” of netizens, like what one minister did 2 years ago in Parliament over bloggers’ reports of the homeless in Singapore.
But also just as important, we all need to settle in to this space. Give ourselves – all sides – time.
There is enough sensible people around to see what is true and what is not. The aim should not be to regulate behaviour. Instead, it should be on promoting critical thinking, a questioning nature. That when we read an article, by anyone, however well-respected or well-known, that the first question we ask is: “How do I know this is true?”
I believe that over time, the Internet (meaning blogs, websites and social networking conversations) will evolve and find its own equilibrium, as Tessa wrote. She ended her piece with:
“The Government has called for online social rules that mirror those in the real world. But lets not forget that norms, whether online or offline, need time to evolve.”
In the meantime, stay calm and carry on. And most importantly, don’t let your blood boil over when you’re online, ok?
Here’s Tessa’s article published in the Straits Times, 9 May 2012:
Netizens can and will self-moderate; Govt can help, but less intrusively
The Straits Times, May 9, 2012
By Tessa Wong
EVEN before its engine could get started, the attempt by the Government to encourage a community-created Internet code of conduct appears to be stalling.
Since last November, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim has been encouraging the online community to spell out its terms of engagement. The idea is to evolve a code that the Internet users would themselves want to subscribe to and enforce on others, although without any penalties for infringement.
It is easy to see why the Government made the call. Over the last few months, the ugly face of cyberspace seems to have been in the spotlight with instances of online witch-hunts and rumour-mongering. Some netizens incensed others so much with postings that were racist or religiously offensive that police reports were lodged. A code of conduct would lay down that vulgarities, racism and outright lies are as unacceptable online as in the real world.
But nearly six months after Dr Yaacob’s call, no consensus has emerged. Some have shrugged, saying that the freedom and anonymity that the Internet affords means that you just cannot stop everyone from saying offensive things.
After a bout of closed-door discussion with Government representatives last month, several prominent bloggers and website owners said upfront that they were against a code and called for the Government to ‘leave the Internet alone’. Some of them are doubtful a code could be workable at all. Others are shying away because they suspect the move is no more than a ploy for the Government to control speech online.
This is ironic because both sides are essentially chasing the same goal – self-regulation. But a major point of contention is whether the Government can or should play midwife in the birth of a code.
The Government says it wants to see a ground-up initiative but also hopes to shape it. It views itself as a neutral coordinator and facilitator in the process. As Dr Yaacob put it, the formation of the code would be ‘supervised and guided’ by ministry officials and Mica has called for interested parties to submit proposals.
From the Internet community’s point of view, this can be a minefield. The idea of self-regulation is that the state should not get involved at all. Because of a trust gap, some have baulked at what appears to be an unfortunate mention of ‘supervision’, believing it to be a codeword for the Government dictating the rules. This has partially obscured the debate and the aim of the Government to coordinate various inputs into a cohesive document.
Indeed, there are obvious difficulties in getting a loose band of individuals to sit down and collectively agree to follow a single code of conduct. The nature of the Internet is that it is fragmented, catering to all kinds of niche viewpoints and causes. Unlike industry groups where codes of conduct are common, netizens do not have a clearly defined set of goals.
This was a problem that Web expert Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales ran up against in 2007, when they created a code for bloggers. The points included disallowing anonymous comments, and not saying anything online that you would not in person. To no one’s great surprise, the initiative flopped. Having one set of rules was too monolithic, for the wide range of interests and needs.
Divergence in views is a given and need not prevent the evolution of a code. One way is wooing the Internet service providers and Web companies to come up with their own code of conduct so they do their bit to promote civility online.
In Malaysia, for instance, a coalition of industry groups including Internet service providers, advertisers, broadcasters and civic institutions drew up a code in 2004 that included a pledge not to host indecent or menacing content.
A code that was initiated by the Canadian Association of Internet Service Providers in 1996 pledges that members will investigate and take action against cases where users post illegal content.
In Singapore, a voluntary code of conduct exists among the major telecommunications providers to protect minors from accessing undesirable online content on mobile handsets. This could serve as the building block for a broader code.
But if it is to have any traction, netizens need to step up to the plate too. For instance, well-known bloggers could voice their disapproval of wrong behaviour more often. Ordinary users too should speak up more and louder.
This is already happening. When The Straits Times reported recently that a Filipino boy was wrongly targeted in an online witch-hunt, several netizens condemned the act in comments on the websites which had led the campaign. Two weeks ago, former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong decried Internet vigilantism in a post, while last month satirist Mr Brown appealed to netizens to stop spreading kidnap rumours.
Websites like The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus have moderation policies warning users that they would delete comments that are defamatory, or racially or religiously offensive.
All these are signs that the community can and will self-moderate, only to a looser extent than the Government envisions.
As netizens negotiate this process of self-regulation, the Government can indeed help. It cannot be the arbiter of cyberspace, but can wield its influence in a less intrusive way, for example by publicly encouraging the community whenever it pushes back against bad behaviour.
Giving netizens latitude and time to do it on their own is important as online discourse is still evolving and finding its equilibrium. One example is the number of blogs and netizens that have popped up in recent years to express moderate views or support for the Government. The variety of voices has helped even the anti-Government tilt in online discourse.
The Government has called for online social rules that mirror those in the real world. But let’s not forget that norms, whether online or offline, need time to evolve.