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Free speech is only as strong as your weakest link




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By Kumaran Pillai
Managing Editor
weakest-linkFirstly, my sincere thanks to MDA and folks for announcing our arrival.  And I thought that it would be apt to start the inaugural issue about the threats to free speech on the Internet in Singapore.
The Internet has played a pivotal role in somewhat democratizing the landscape in Singapore. It opens up new avenues for innovative companies to exploit the market for the pent up demand for alternative news sites. However, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way is government regulation. Or, so it seems.
Orchid Revolution
The key question in our mind is is regulation necessary and what would the government achieve out of this?
Our society is going through a swift transformation and according to The Independent’s editor, PN Balji, it is “the orchid revolution,” a more subtle quite change that is taking place in our country.
“Because the government has played a critical role, a womb-to-tomb role in people’s lives, now there’s a boomerang effect. They blame the government for everything that goes wrong in Singapore,” said Balji.
Given the new political climate, it appears that the government is trying to take back control by controlling the media, or more appropriately, the Internet.
Government Control
However, when it comes to regulating the Internet, Singapore is not alone. Countries like Russia, China, Vietnam and Middle Eastern countries are proposing some form of regulation that would rein in online publications.
Jordan has recently shut down 200 online publications which are critical of the government and it is only ranked 134th by Reporters without Borders while Singapore is ranked 149th without having to shut down any site. It speaks volumes about how efficient and effective our MDA is.
But that is not the only troubling fact. There are bigger threats to our freedom on the Internet and it has nothing to do with the Singapore government.
In 2012, the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union proposed to bring the Internet, currently overseen by private sector and engineering groups, under governmental and UN control.  The bill was opposed by the US, Canada and European nations. However, there is still concern that this bill may be passed at some stage in the future.
Internet is overseen by for-profit companies
One needs to bear in mind that the Internet is nothing more than computers interconnected with each other through optic fiber cables, wireless and 3G networks that are controlled primarily by telecommunications companies. These companies may decide at some time in the future to charge toll for international traffic which is provided free of charge today.
What this means is that blogs that are running on the basis that the Internet is free may face extinction due to the additional costs that are imposed on them.
There are also new technologies that are being developed that may replace Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) which powers the Internet today. Again, this may affect the future of Internet and the underlying cost structures.
This is one of the primary reasons for me to move to a commercial entity so that I can mitigate these risks. For, free speech as we know it is only as strong as the weakest link.
Regulation has a downside
Regulation needs to be taken in the proper context. While I am no cyber utopian and while I do think that some form of Internet code of conduct is necessary. I prefer it to be something that originates from the Internet community rather than a government sanctioned one.
In an already highly regulated media industry like Singapore’s, additional forms of regulation do little for the development of the industry. In fact, it only stifles innovation.
I have already jumped through several hoops to set this up. And it is quite likely the authorities will put up more hurdles to make this journey even more exciting for me and the rest of the team and I suppose, we’ll just have to take it in our stride.
With that note, I take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Happy National Day!

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