Four Internet giants criticise Singapore news website regulations

On July 3, 2013, I published an exclusive in Lianhe Zaobao on how the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has written to Singapore’s government, expressing concerns about a new ruling requiring news websites of a certain reach to first seek licensing from the government before it can start operations.

The coalition counts four Internet giants – Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and eBay – as its members.

The story quickly was picked up by Bloomberg, Reuters, Yahoo! News and several other Singaporean websites the same day after Zaobao hit newsstands. Major newspapers also carried the story the next day. It also provoked a debate at a parliament seating a few days later.

The story even later caught the attention of the American State Department. On July 8, at a daily press briefing, a spokesperson expressed the Department’s concerns on the new ruling, saying that Singapore should “… ensure that freedom of expression is protected in accordance with its international obligations and commitments”.

A good summary of my article can be found here.

Translated version of the article, and its original in Mandarin Chinese:

Four Internet giants criticise news website regulations; Singapore Government reiterates stance on introduction of regulations

Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and eBay have raised their concerns about Singapore’s latest move to tighten regulation of news websites, criticising the new legislation as one which has already “negatively impacted Singapore’s global image as an open and business-friendly country”.

Singapore’s Communications and Information Ministry, in a response released to the companies yesterday, reiterated its stance on introducing these measures. The ministry also invited these companies to provide their views on upcoming changes to the Broadcasting Act.

Displeasure against this new legislation in the city-state has largely been voiced by Singaporean bloggers, netizens and media companies. These four Internet giants’ concerns lend a new dimension to debate about this legislation, which came into effect June 1.

Lianhe Zaobao understands that lobby group Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), representing these four Internet companies, penned a letter on June 14, expressing its concerns to Communications and Information Minister, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.

Dr John Ure, AIC’s executive director, writes in the letter that “this new regulation – and the regulatory trend that this may be indicative of – could unintentionally hamper Singapore’s ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries in the technology space and attract investment in this key sector. We also believe that the scope of the regulation and manner in which it was introduced have negatively impacted Singapore’s global image as an open and business-friendly country.”

Set up in 2011, Hong Kong-based AIC consults governments in the Asia-Pacific region on Internet policies.

A spokesperson for the ministry responded yesterday to Zaobao’s queries. He stated that, in its reply to AIC, also sent yesterday, the ministry reiterated its stance that these regulations were to ensure that news websites were subjected to the same regulatory standards as traditional media.

After the regulations were introduced in June, AIC has been in talks with the Media Development Authority (MDA), the regulator overseeing these regulations, to understand how they work. When asked why did AIC still deem it necessary to express its views to the minister, Dr Ure told Zaobao: “AIC was caught off guard by the MCI Minister’s announcement of new regulations. … It is always AIC’s position that changes of this kind are best done through industry consultation otherwise mistakes can be made.”

AIC, in its letter, explained how these regulations could affect the industry in two ways.

Firstly, it deems the regulation as “vague and broad”. Hence, successful implementation of it might entail curbing innovation, or impede the industry’s development. “These types of uncertainties have a significant chilling effect on innovation and negatively impact Singapore’s ability to attract investments, both of which are critical to the healthy development of the infocomm and media sector in Singapore.”

Secondly, AIC believes that “additional licensing conditions are onerous, regressive and untenable in practice” for the industry. In particular, AIC believes that the requirement for news websites to take down, within 24 hours, any story that authorities deem objectionable is too onerous. It suggests that “… this provision is removed and replaced with a ‘best endeavours’ response within a reasonable timeframe taking into account all of the circumstances.”

AIC also appealed to the Singapore Government to reconsider the necessity of the regulation a year or two after implementation.

The ministry’s spokesperson, in responding to AIC’s views on the 24-hour take-down requirement, said that the ministry has already taken into account on how quickly information can spread online, thus “…is important in the management of false news information that may cause mass panic.”

The spokesperson said the government welcomed AIC’s views on proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act.

Dr Ure told Zaobao last night that he thanked the ministry for its response, and looked forward to continued dialogue with the government on this matter.

Baey Yam Keng, vice chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Communications and Information, said that concerns raised by these Internet companies should not be brushed aside. “These are mainstream Internet companies. If we don’t allay their concerns, it would definitely affect our country’s reputation as a business-friendly hub. But everyone should also realise any effect brought about by these new regulations will need time to materialise, and only then can we see how big of an impact it has on Singapore.”

The Communications and Information Ministry announced earlier that effective June 1, websites which see more than 50,000 unique visitors per month, and carry more than one news story per week, must obtain an individual licence before they can publish.

These licensees would also have to put up a S$50,000 performance bond. Should authorities deem an article objectionable, these licensees would have to take down the said article within 24 hours. Ten websites, including Yahoo’s popular Singapore news site, were required by authorities to be licensed.

The government also plans on updating the Broadcasting Act. It will require foreign media companies with data servers hosted overseas to have to adhere local media regulations should they want to operate in Singapore’s market.

Bloggers and netizens came out strongly against the regulations on news sites. Alan Soon, Yahoo’s Singapore country director, earlier posted a public blog post stating that these regulations were “redundant”. He also mentioned that Yahoo was studying the regulations carefully, and that Yahoo has not decided if it would apply for such a license.

就新闻网站新执照条例 四网络巨头致函部长表担忧 通讯及新闻部回应并重申推行立场

孙伟伦报道

面簿(Facebook)、谷歌(Google)、雅虎(Yahoo!)和eBay日前致函我国通讯及新闻部长雅国博士,表示刚生效的新闻网站新执照框架条例已损害新加坡亲商的国家形象。

通讯及新闻部昨天回应它们所提出的担忧,并重申推行新条例的立场,也欢迎公司代表参与即将展开的修改《广播法令》公共咨询,提出看法。

这四家网络巨头的诉求,是继本地媒体公司、网民、博客管理者等连日来所提出的请愿和不满之后,针对新条例发声。它们都在本地设有办事处,甚至区域总部。

本报了解到,代表四家网络公司的游说团体“亚洲互联网政策组织”(Asia Internet Coalition,简称AIC),上个月14日在获得四家公司的同意后致函雅国,提出对新条例的关注。

AIC在这封由执行董事尤尔(John Ure)起草的信中写道:“新条例及它所可能延伸出来的政策发展趋势,将无形中抑制新加坡继续创新的能力,或者阻碍科技业的发展,外来投资也可能会减少。我们也相信新条例的涵盖范围,以及推出条例的方式,将对新加坡作为一个开放、对企业友好的国家形象起到负面影响。”

AIC于2011年在香港正式成立,是亚洲区域政府在推出影响互联网的管制政策方面的咨询组织。这两年来,它已经同香港、菲律宾、越南,以及我国政府进行交涉。

通讯及新闻部发言人昨天回复本报的询问时表示,该部在昨天给予AIC的回函中,重申了推出新条例是要统一网络新闻媒体与传统媒体的管理标准的立场。

AIC已在6月初与媒体发展管理局就新条例进行对话。至于为何要致函雅国,尤尔受访时说:“新条例让AIC大感意外,也让我们很担心……我们的一贯立场是,这类政策改变最好是经过业界咨询后才进行,要不然很容易产生问题。”

AIC在信中提出新条例将从两方面影响企业。

首先,它认为条例行文抽象,一旦实施会抑制创新、阻碍企业发展。企业今后在新加坡设立公司、数据中心时会再三考虑。“条例中的种种不确定性将为创新,以及新加坡在吸引投资方面带来‘寒蝉效应’,阻碍新加坡资讯通信媒体业的健康发展。”

其次,AIC认为新条例所附加的发放执照要求在现实生活中是“繁重、阻碍发展,甚至是站不住脚的。”对于这一点,它认为“有关不当内容的条例很抽象,要对方在24小时内取下这些言论,时间上是不足够的”。它建议把条文修改为,公司应该“尽所能”地在最短时间内取下内容。

AIC也希望政府可以考虑在一两年内检讨新条例的必要性。

针对AIC对于修改24小时内删除不当内容的条例的建议,通讯及新闻部发言人表示,政府已经考虑到资讯是如何在网络上迅速传播,因此“这项规定对管理不真实资讯是很重要的,尤其是那些可能造成群众恐慌的不真实资讯。”

欢迎公司在公共咨询中提意见

发言人也表示,政府欢迎AIC在修改《广播法令》的公共咨询中提供意见。

尤尔昨晚对本报说感谢通讯及新闻部的回复,并表示组织将继续与政府进行对话。

政府国会通讯及资信委员会副主席马炎庆认为,四家网络公司的顾虑不容忽视。他说:“它们都是主流的网络公司,如果没有正视这些问题让它们放下心,的确会影响我国的形象。不过也希望大家了解到,必须给新条例一段时间来落实,才能真正看到它的影响有多大。”

通讯及新闻部属下的媒发局日前宣布从6月1日起,任何新闻网站只要在连续两个月内,平均每周发表一则本地新闻或时事报道,并在这两个月内每月吸引至少五万个不同的本地网络IP地址点阅,就得申请执照。

网站也得按照新条例缴付5万元履约保证金,以及在接获内容违反媒发局条例的通知时,在24小时内删除。

共有10个互联网新闻平台受条例影响,其中包括雅虎新加坡新闻网。

政府也将在明年探讨修改《广播法令》,以确保其他使用外国服务器但却主要针对本地市场的外国业者,能被纳入执照管制框架内。

政府公布新条例后,引来网民和博客管理者的强烈反弹,雅虎新加坡的经理全德运日前更表示新条例是“多余”的,不过还在解读条例细节,无法确定会否申请执照。


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