No more “light touch” for the evil Internet?

internetcookiesevilIt is not often that you read articles defending – or at least not demonising – the Internet, and netizens or the blogosphere, in particular – in the mainstream media. But when you do, these articles come as respite from the incessant nonsensical drone from some ministers (including the prime minister) and their supporters like the Straits Times’ chief editor, Warren Fernandez.

Two such occasions of respite occurred recently – “Online social norms need time to evolve” by ST’s Tessa Wong on 9 May 2012; and “From covert vigilantism to communal vigilance” by Carol Soon.

Tessa wrote:

“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.”

Carol cited the recent incident of the two brothers who were killed in a road accident in Tampines to show that netizens do know when the line is crossed.

“The swift lambasting by some online citizens of the circulation of pictures of the Tampines accident is an example of communal vigilance. Soon after the photographs were posted, prominent bloggers and forum participants questioned the motives and the need for sharing such pictures. They called on the online community to show greater respect to the family of the boys who died.”

It is a view which apparently the Prime Minister does not share.

On 28 January, PM Lee Hsien Loong was reported to have said:

“We don’t believe the community in the social space, especially online, moderates itself. It doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. 

“You have views going to extremes and when people respond to their views, they may respond in an extreme way, and when people decide to disapprove of something which was inappropriate, the disapproval can also happen in an extreme way. 

“It’s in the nature of the medium, the way the interactions work and that’s the reason why we think it cannot be completely left by itself.”

PM Lee’s remarks seem to imply that the government prefers regulation to community self-moderation. And indeed, this is one reason some have suspected for the government setting up the Media Literacy Council (MLC), chaired by Senior Counsel Tan Cheng Han. Mr Tan’s appointment itself – he being a senior lawyer – give credence to the view that the MLC will look more at regulating the Internet by law than anything else. Mr Tan, however, has said that he is not in favour of regulation, although he does not rule out a code of conduct for online discourse, an idea which was first mooted by the Minister for the then-ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica). But even a code of conduct seems to be no longer what the government prefers – seeing how the PM himself now says social media “cannot be completely left by itself.”

Mr Tan, and others who do not support further regulation or a code of conduct, would most probably be disappointed, given that the signs are there for the government to implement regulation of cyberspace. To me, this is as good as a given. The only questions that remain are: what such regulation will entail, and how far reaching will its (negative) consequences be in terms of the evolution of the Internet space for discourse, especially political discourse.

The ministry is keeping its cards close to its chest and is not divulging much.

What is certain is that the government seems prepared to reverse its position of adopting a “light touch” when it comes to the Internet. The rhetoric coming from within the ranks of the government, all the way from the prime minister himself, seems to put paid to any hopes that the government will stay its hands and let the online space evolve on its own organically. Indeed, in recent times, legal threats were made against some bloggers and blog sites by government ministers and government organisations. The sense of unease and impatience within the government is almost palpable.

It would be a shame if tighter regulations were introduced, and expression curbed. It would be a step backward for all of us, and it would do the government no good whatsoever.

It would also prove that the words of those – such as Tessa and Carol – who are calling for the government to let online space evolve so that “a greater clarity of what are acceptable and unacceptable online practices will emerge over time… [and that] we may be able to strike a fine balance between upholding the sanctity of freedom of expression and preserving social harmony in society” – have fallen on deaf ears.

This can only lead to a further erosion of trust in the government which had pledged a “light touch” for the Internet. More regulation will inspire even more pronounced and shrill anti-government voices online – the very thing the government says it is concerned about.

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