Tuesday 4 June 2013

#tbt Singapore Internet regulation, 1996-style!

The headline of the Reuters story:

"Singapore struggles to control cyberspace"

Here's the twist: The article is not about MDA's new online licensing scheme.

The article is from October 1996 - yes, the same year we were introduced to Ann Kok's breasts. It's about the Singapore Government's early attempt to regulate Internet content in the 90s.

I was even quoted in the story! It seems that for one very, very brief shiny moment 17 years ago, I represented the voice of the "anarchic" Internet in Singapore. I'm so proud.

Here's the Reuters report in full:

Singapore, famous for its social order and regulation, is struggling to control the chaos of the Internet.

Determined to make the tiny city-state "an information hub", in the words of Information and Arts Minister George Yeo, Singapore is linking every household through a vast network of high capacity coaxial cables and super-computers.

Once completed, access to the global computer network will be 1,000 times faster than through normal telephone connections.

Over 150,000 of Singapore's 750,000 households are already on line and all three million people should be tied in by 1999.

But with this information revolution comes new challenges, testing Singapore's famous social order, which has been carefully cultivated by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) since the country's independence in 1965.

Long used to a strictly controlled local press and restrictions on many foreign publications, Singaporeans suddenly have virtually open access to news, information, films and, most worrying to the authorities, pornography.

This was not the what the government had in mind. "We want businessmen to invest in the Internet and develop new software," Mr Yeo said in recent interview. "We want the department stores and the purveyors of goods and services to make most use of the Internet."

Worried by lack of control, Singapore has announced measures to try to curb local access to "undesireable" Internet sites.

The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) licences just three Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for domestic subscribers, all units of government-linked companies, including state telephone company Singapore Telecom.

All three have installed "proxy servers", giant computers capable of blocking sites the SBA wants banned.

Singapore-based groups wanting to produce pages for the Internet's most popular forum, the World Wide Web, must also register with the SBA and can expect careful vetting if they trespass into the political or religious arena.

But the anarchic Internet, which lacks any central authority, appears to be defeating most attempts at control.

"It is impossible to block every site," said SM Ong, editor of the Singapore edition of Asia Online magazine.

"Some adult sites have been blocked - Playboy, for example - but if you are someone that seeks out adult sites, all you need to do is use a search engine (software search device) such as Yahoo! or Infoseek and type in a word like 'sex' or 'nudity'," he said.

A recent key-word search in Singapore for sites with "sex" in the title found 22,797 responses, many offering free access to pornographic pictures, videos or interactive chat-lines. A similar search for "nudity" found 88,100 sites.

The biggest problem for would-be regulators is the Internet's size.

With worldwide connections fast approaching 100 million, and new users coming in by tens of thousands every day, there are simply too many sites to police.

Even if authorities were able to monitor and shut down offensive sites as fast as they appeared, users could simply dodge local controls by dialing into an Internet node in another country at international phone rates that are falling fast.

Faced with these hurdles, the Singapore authorities have decided to pick off what they say are the worst sites with "mass impact" at source, while attempting to curb access to pornography by encouraging control at a local level.

SBA chief executive officer Goh Liang Kwang says it has banned "just a few dozen sites", all of them pornographic.

"We want parents and teachers to put in their own measures like desk-top software such as 'SurfWatch' and 'Net Nanny'," Mr Goh told Reuters in an interview.

Knowing it cannot block the overwhelming majority of sites on the Internet it dislikes and realising it is impractical to interfere with key-word searches, the SBA is making a gesture, which it hopes Singaporeans will respond to, Mr Goh says.

On a political level, the governing PAP has set up its own Internet sites to counter "misinformation" about Singapore.

But opponents of censorship sense victory.

"There is already plenty of censorship in Singapore," said Alex Chacko, publisher of several books about Singapore life which he says have incurred official displeasure.

"We've had problems in the past getting reviewed in Singapore... Now we use the Internet."

- Reuters

It's interesting to see from the article how since 1996, the Government's approach to regulating the Internet has changed - and hasn't.

You can read my own 2008 New Paper commentary on censorship that referenced the article here.

Or you can go back to surfing porn.

1996 Class Licence Scheme press release