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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Self-regulation of bloggers?

Most Controversial Post
Update 1: continued in part 2
Update 2: I've noticed lots of referrals from Google and Yahoo Malaysia searches for "blog regulation singapore" or similar. If you are one of them,... hello! *waves hand*
Update 3: Malaysian bloggers have formed their own association.
Update 4: This entry has been nominated for the Most Controversial Post in Ping.SG's 1st Anniversary Blog Awards! Vote for me!

So, it looks like I'm late to the "party", but between work and sleep, I've had little time to mull over this... Which isn't entirely true because, in a way, this has been at the back of my mind for a long time.

But before I begin, here's some background reading for what I'm talking about:I'm not trained in the legal profession, so what follows is based on my layman's observation. Also, because of time, I'm not going to write out a full-fledged editorial.

The primary reason for self-regulation is to pre-empt the government before it enacts laws targeting blogging specifically. It seems to me that the fear of such an action by the government is due to the proposed amendment to the Penal Code, which will have explicit laws against illegal computer and online activity. And also because the government has explicitly regulated other media, like newspapers and TV (if one considers a blog to be a similar form of medium).

In other words, it's like bloggers telling the government, "Look, we're gonna police ourselves, so you don't have to do it for us, and as long as we (bloggers) play nice, would you be so kind as to focus on other matters at hand?" (Of course, not in such a frank and curt manner.)

On the other side are bloggers who say that blogging is all about free expression and "why should we subject ourselves to any form of regulation, whether self-imposed or not?" Also, enforcing such regulation on a group as diverse as bloggers is like telling bacteria not to reproduce.

Not to mention that there is the implicit requirement of forming an association to enforce the regulation on wayward bloggers. Which leads to the issue of why a blogger, especially one who values his anonymity, would want to register himself with an association. (And on a logistics side, how would a group blog be registered and regulated?)

And one more thing: the government has already taken action against bloggers using the Sedition Act. So what's the point of using up time and resources to enact regulation?

All kinds of cans of worms here...

Here's what I know:
  1. There are all kinds of bloggers. There are serious bloggers, like those mentioned above. There are teenage bloggers wHo wRiTe LiKe tHiS and use a lot of SMS-style language. There are satirical blogs. There are group blogs. There are even blogs written by politicians.
  2. Blogging, in general, is by nature a personal affair.
  3. The government used the Sedition Act to punish racist writers. However, the government can, at its discretion, use the Sedition Act to punish anyone who abuses a race or religion, which is the point of the Act. The Act does not target bloggers specifically.
  4. The Penal Code review is, to me, an exercise in updating it for 21st century realities, like consensual oral sex between husband and wife (yes, it's illegal as of this writing). One of these realities is the impact of the online world. I believe that the government does not see any distinction between online and offline speech. So, the Penal Code review brings it in line with existing laws, including the Misuse of Computers Act (I think that is its official name).
  5. Singapore does not have the First Amendment found in the Constitution of the United States. Bloggers here like to think that it does, but seriously, look it up in the Constitution and our laws, and you'll come up empty-handed. While the Singapore Constitution does guarantee free speech, there are a couple of caveats, including speech about race or religion, and anything that will "excite the people" about the government (use your own interpretation).
My thinking is that it's still possible to self-regulate local bloggers. It requires three parts to work successfully:

1. Follow the Creative Commons "opt-in" model.
(This is key. Everything else that I propose follows from this.)

Creative Commons is an "opt-in" system, that is, the publisher chooses whether to use Creative Commons or not. Creative Commons cannot force anything on him. Likewise, any regulation on blogs can be on an "opt-in" system. Opting in is like declaring publicly to follow the set of rules. It also means that the blogger has agreed to set himself to a certain standard which he will not deviate from.

There is no negative impact on not opting in. Just as publishers who don't explicitly use a Creative Commons license can still share their work if they choose to, likewise, bloggers who don't opt in can choose to blog according to the limits of the regulations. The difference is that the public will perceive them to be in a grey, "are they or aren't they?" area. There's nothing wrong with that. Opting into the regulation simply clarifies the blogger's position.

2. Form an association to enforce the regulation.
First, you opt in. Next, you put it down in writing. This goes against the Creative Commons model. However (and Singapore Angle will say, "Unfortunately"), we live in Singapore and are bound by its quirks. There is a better chance of closing an integrated resort than the government letting a bunch of bloggers run free with some so-called regulation.

The association could be like the Law Society, which enforces its rules and takes action against wayward members. When the government recognises that there is a proper method to the madness, I believe that it is more likely to trust the individuals involved and let them operate on their own.

3. Bring in a minister or two.
Yes, I'm serious about this. Without government backing, any self-regulation will just be hot air. The government can play a role similar to an adult chaperone for children on a field trip., i.e. it provides guidance and safety.

Of course, this will require the government to recognise that it can't be heavy-handed. Maybe something similar to how IDA manages the telcos. Or something like "As long as you don't cause trouble, I'll stay out of your way."

All of the above is really just an idea in my head. Maybe someone agrees it, but I think most bloggers won't. We'd prefer to just be left to our own devices. Why bother with self-regulation? That's just another headache.

Well, I think the alternative -- that of the government setting laws and/or policies targeting bloggers specifically -- is one that will agitate bloggers even more. Indeed, it sounds like choosing the lesser of two evils, doesn't it?


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