After months of trying to cajole and persuade Internet practitioners to create a "ground-up" code of conduct (COC) for online discourse, the Government has taken a tentative step towards making this happen, even as bloggers continue to reject such a code.
The authorities will form a 21-member Media Literacy Council (MLC), headed by senior counsel Tan Cheng Han, on 1 August. The council members include academics, heads of various organisations, and one blogger. Mr Tan was also the deputy chairman of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) in 2007.
The MLC members will be appointed by the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.
The council "will be supported by the resources from the Media Development Authority (MDA) in its role as secretariat to the council", the MLC says in a press release on Tuesday. The MDA's National Internet Advisory Committee and the Parents Advisory Group for the Internet will serve in a more advisory capacity.
"The MLC will… spearhead public education on media literacy and cyber wellness, and advise the government on the appropriate policy response to an increasingly complex and borderless world of media, technology, consumer expectations and participation," the council says. "The MLC hopes to raise the media literacy level of Singaporeans so that everyone can benefit even more from the Internet, and traditional and new media," Mr Tan explains.
The MLC will be participating in the Communications Literacy Seminar, a conference jointly organised by the MDA and the International Institute of Communications (IIC) on 5 October 2012; and the global initiative Safer Internet Day on 5 February 2013. "These events will serve to plug Singapore into the international network and conversation on media literacy as well as raise local awareness of issues that the world is already talking about," the MLC says.
When asked if it will also be looking into the creation of a COC, Mr Tan, who is also Law professor at the National University of Singapore, says it "could be one of the issues discussed by the Council as part of its wider remit." For the moment, however, he says the Council "does not have any specific plans or views on such a code at this time."
The council will begin discussions about its programmes and priorities at the first meeting expected sometime in August.
Asked about how different the MLC will be from AIMS, Mr Tan says, "AIMS was limited to new media while MLC is not. MLC's role is also not entirely advisory as it is intended that MLC will collaborate with others on as well as drive media literacy efforts."
"I am of the view that MLC should take into account what has been done in the past, including AIMS' recommendations though things can change, so past recommendations may not be as relevant today as they were previously."
Mr Tan says the "council is intended to include traditional media as well" as part of its remit.
The MLC has come at a time when the Government has raised concerns about online behaviour and discourse, especially with regards to race and religion matters, the emerging anti-foreigner sentiments, and cyber-bullying and harassment.
It has thus in recent times consulted with several parties, including bloggers, on how these concerns can be addressed. A COC, first mooted by the Mica minister in November last year, is seen by the authorities as one way to rein in "unacceptable" behaviour online. The minister was reported to have said that he "believes an Internet code of conduct is necessary and that the onus is on Internet users to define its contents, even as MICA will supervise and guide the process of developing such a code."
Bloggers react negatively
The suggestion, however, has drawn sharp criticism from online practitioners, especially bloggers, who have reacted negatively to the formation of the MLC and its intentions.
"I think the need to educate our young on cyber wellness is not in doubt," says Richard Wan, editor with TR Emeritus. "In this regard, MLC serving as a public education platform for the safe use of the Internet is admirable. However, it won't work if the MLC, in reviewing approaches to create a more participatory and responsible cyberspace culture, tries to get websites and blogs to adopt its recommended approaches."
Mr Ravi Philemon, former chief editor of The Online Citizen, questions the timing of the creation of the MLC. "The timing of the launch of this new council is suspicious," he says. It comes after bloggers "almost unanimously" rejected the Mica minister's call for a COC for the Internet.
It is a sentiment echoed by blogger and writer, Kirsten Han. "To me, this looks like something Mica has come up with after being rebuffed by bloggers about the proposal to develop a Code of Conduct," she says. A COC "is not necessary because the Internet can be inherently self-correcting, and we are never going to solve any problem by enforcing any 'code'. We need to look deeper than that."
Philemon is also puzzled by the possibility that a COC is going to be discussed through the MLC although, he says, a closed-door discussion organised by the Institute of Policy Studies some weeks was supposed to have put the matter to rest, given that consensus among bloggers were against such a code. "Now it seems that this new council will find collaborators to push the COC through despite what the general sentiment among bloggers may be."
The overall sentiment online is a lingering distrust of the intentions of the authorities, that there is more to just promoting "cyber wellness" than the authorities are leading on. "Yes, I do see this [MLC] as a Government attempt to stick a hand in where they previously have not had much success in controlling," Ms Han says. "I don't know if there will be any direct curb on free speech but it seems like yet another case of the Government trying to be the 'leader' or 'agenda setter' instead of allowing things to develop organically."
"The MLC will not curb online speech or even achieve any of its aims," says Belmont Lay, editor with New Nation. "This is because the Internet community thrives on being 'uncivilised' and spontaneous. We shouldn't tamper with its best qualities."
The MLC's goals, as Tan says in the MLC's press release, are to "raise the media literacy level of Singaporeans so that everyone can benefit even more from the Internet, and traditional and new media."
"In cyberspace and the real world where people are constantly interacting and sharing information, appropriate social norms and discernment are important," he added.
Cyber safety was also one of the goals of the AIMS initiative 4 years ago.
However, some like Ms Han question if media literacy is about cyber wellness and safety at all. "Although they're certainly not mutually exclusive, media literacy isn't actually about being safe or secure," she says. "It's not about 'appropriate social norms' (who even decides what these norms are?). It's about recognising how the media affect our lives, and therefore taking steps to think critically about the influence that it wields."
Council member, former Nominated Member of Parliament, Calvin Cheng, says that there are "many aspects of media literacy in general and the Internet in particular" and he hopes that "we can avoid politicising the MLC and its aims."
"Bullying, stalking, sexual grooming, exposure to pornography and violence are all dangers that our young have to face on the Internet," he says. "[We] could teach our child to stand up to the playground bully in real life, or take the matter up to a teacher, but how do we deal with anonymous bullying on the Internet that can reach out to so many more people at the click of a button?"
"Therefore in the absence of the ability to seek remedial measures, we need new life-skills to acquire preventive measures. And this I think is what the MLC needs to do, and this I think all internet practitioners should support regardless of political beliefs," he says.
Cheng also feels that the mainstream media "needs to really up their standards" and that they should "not instead dumb-down to the lowest common denominator with sensational reporting in order to win back readership."
"Unfortunately, we see some mainstream media providers doing this," Cheng says, "and this makes media literacy skills even more important. Media literacy needs to apply not only to consumers [but to] providers as well."
Still, the initial negative reaction of distrust and scepticism from bloggers remain and, according to Lee Kin Mun, better known as Mr Brown and also affectionately described as the Blog Father of the blogosphere, the "Internet community will very likely not even notice or care about [the MLC's] existence."
"If it makes the government happy to have some kind of advisory council (council sounds SO IMPORTANT!), hey, who are we to tell them not to set up one, right? We wish them all the best in trying to manage the giant ocean known as the Internet."
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.