A gangster asking for protection money


Sorry, the government doesn’t want you to know

There was such a huge outcry when the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced the licensing regulations for news websites that you would think they are shutting down the Internet entirely.

But everyone is justifiably worried. The new rules are not only broad-based, they are also vague, arbitrary and potentially limitless. Why 50,000 unique IPs? Why $50,000? Why these ten websites but not others? It looks like a bunch of civil servants got together in a meeting room and pluck some numbers out of thin air. They might as well charge $49,999 and tell us it’s a half-price early bird discount.

In truth, countries all over the world as diverse as the UK, New Zealand, South Africa and Taiwan have been looking to bring some control over the Internet. But to demand for a performance bond is absurd and draconian, especially if it starts targeting non-commercial sites.

Unfortunately, this kind of shotgun legislation is not uncommon from this government. Just earlier this year, another three-letter government agency starting with the letter M came up with this bright idea to limit car loans without any prior public consultation. It led to a backlash from second hand car dealers and a temporary suspension of the rules. This is what happens when you play with a shotgun — it backfires and you end up shooting yourself in the foot.

Speaking of shooting yourself in the foot, the Straits Times reported today that the CEO of MDA just bought a Corals at Keppel Bay condominium unit for $10 million. This is hardly the best time to show off your riches, knowing that the MDA will come under fire after the announcement.

Yakult Ibrahim (not his real name) said that they will look to include websites based overseas that reported on Singapore news. Like in the milky drink, the L-casei Shirota in him wants to crawl all over the worldwide web to eliminate harmful threats and preserve the government’s well-being.

It remains to be seen if foreign news organisations like the BBC,  The Financial Times, The Economist and Bloomberg News will be willing to abide by the rules just because 50,000 machines in Singapore visited their websites. Given how broad the rules are, even topical sites in areas such as sports, lifestyle and technology are covered. So, potentially, websites like ESPNSoccernet and CNET Asia could fall under the rules if they cover events in Singapore regularly enough.

It’s like a gangster asking for protection money when all along you were minding your own business — there is only harm and no protection but you either pay up or close shop. And if you do something they don’t like, they will kick your arse even if technically you are not physically present.

I am particularly puzzled by the plan to regulate foreign websites. What gives the government the legislative power to do so? In the past, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act has been used to control what foreign publications write because the government could restrict their circulation in Singapore. But this is the Internet; there is no physicality. If a website hosted in the Arctic wants to write about the weekly sightings of polar bears in Singapore, what right has the government to control it? And if a foreign media agency refuses to withdraw its content, is there anything the government can do other than to block the website? Can the government afford the international bad publicity of blocking a website such as the BBC?

The online community is fighting back and I can’t see this as anything but a losing battle for the authorities. Like DRM in music downloads and camera phone restrictions in army camps, you end up with stupid rules to curb technology that people will just find ways to circumvent.

For now, the best thing to do for all the websites out there is to KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.