The Perils of Attempting to Regulate the Internet
Posted by intellisg on March 25, 2007
Recently at a Foreign Correspondents Association lunch, the government unveiled its strategy to manage the new media. Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan – mentioned the need to set “the rules of engagement” for the new media.
It’s a development that has generated considerable consternation in blogosphere – some have labeled it, simply as yet another attempt to control and regulate the internet. Others feel real or imagined. This was simply just another ploy designed to cower wayward bloggers to behave or else…… The oblique threat is clear – we live in a world of implications. So now you know the facts of life – the writing is on the wall.
This throws out the question what are the drivers which had led to this development? What does the government hope to accomplish and more important will it really work? Are there any pitfalls?
THE NEED TO FIND HEAVENLY BALANCE.
One concern highlighted by the Dr V. Balakrishnan was:
“The need to balance the diverse interests of the society when it comes to issues of sex, nudity and violence online.”
No one doubts there is a need to balance these elements. Rather the issue remains to what degree? As the Ancient ascetics who worry no end about the prospect of threading where angels fear to tread will say,
“String it too tightly and it will snap. String it too loose and the Sitar will simply not play.”
At the crux of the issue, it begs the question where is the sweet point that yields the perfect balance to allow for the necessary widget space for evolution. Yet maintaining the desired control features to ensure the new media develops coherently. This would of course require us to examine what is meant by term “diverse interest?” And consider whether it’s even malleable enough to lend themselves itself as ballast to facilitate the balancing act.
Setting aside morality and religious diversity and restricting ourselves purely to a political examination. It would be accurate to say the partisan landscape of Singapore embodies the entire undulating contour of the entire political spectrum ranging from the extreme neo conservative, middle moderate to the progressive.
How then does the government attempt to then find the happy “balance?” The answer depends on a certain understanding of the complexity of political theory. Do all political standards derive from a single principle? No so even if policymakers decide to plumb their line of acceptability on the median scale, it doesn’t even guarantee them a fair payout – after all what about those seething at the bi-polar spectrum?
Another problem with this theory of statistical accommodation, it’s at best a compromised solution. Pursuing such a strategy only inspires limited discourse that brackets (i.e., that excludes from discussion) morality, religion and sex so completely, it’s bound to eventually generate its own disenchantment creating an unfulfilled need for a deeper discussion and explorations into the bracketed issues.
Where then will these discussions find themselves sprouting out? Yes (you guessed it) the internet. So you are back to square one again. I stand corrected as always, but I spent nearly a whole morning just pretending to work while modeling the outcome using heuristic game theory on 10 sheets of A-4 paper. I am afraid I could be right. Could someone please prove me wrong? I doubt it.)
One of the reasons why the internet scene in Singapore remains such a prolific domain where there is considerable discourse pertaining to religion, sex and politics is because no such outlet exist in the real world! In New York, one would simply stand naked in Times Square. In London, speakers corner will do quite nicely, but in Singapore filling up the form to even stand in Speakers corner is like applying for a position in NASA. Its tough, hence water finds the course of least resistance – the internet. It is such a wonder than it continues to as an avenue for self expression?
It’s an outlet (for lack of a better word) which contrary to populist belief serves no purpose. Because it fulfils a very important and beneficial function to keep away fundamentalism. As extreme ideologies can really only take root in the absence of liberal discourse. The assumption here is where there is an intellectual vacuum i.e an absence or low level of discourse, radical elements will simply step in to start building their lexicons of truths. That’s one of the contradictions of attempting to regulate the net. It just drives everything underground further beneath the level of scrutiny and detection – that’s just the right conditions for something like an evil brotherhood movement to spawn. Not like our BS variety that claims to be the best kept secret in Singapore that everyone reads regularly during their lunch time break! Again we back to square one.
Another problem with any attempt to control the new media lies in the limits and the impossibility of successfully placating every quarter along the spectrum of a floating notion of acceptability. Like I mentioned earlier not even if policymakers put all their chips squarely on the center of the median scale – that’s only possible if ALL moral standards derive from a single principle. But in multi racial and faith Singapore that’s not possible. The divide between conservatives and progressives will ensure even the most brilliantly crafted datum of “acceptability” remains at best divisive. Resorting to instructional and directional guidelines complimented with the threat of punitive measures to stop them from straggling each other may prove effective, in the short term.
However in the long term it also means institutionalizing and perpetuating the divide. Besides it’s a make lousy sense from a return on energy perspective, regulation anything is just too labor intensive and inefficient. Besides it suffers from a “contemporaneous limiter” effect i.e you only know there is a problem when the shit hits the fan. There is no means to pre-empt a blow up or a full scale internet tsunami from taking shape as we all saw in the Mr Brown saga and the Wee Shun Min affair. In both cases events culminated so rapidly that public outcry was hardly predictable let alone predictable.
A NEW PARADIGM FOR MANAGING A NEW MEDIA
It makes more sense in the long run for policymakers to buy into the notion of devoting their energies to changing public opinion about the net. Rather than wasting their energy on defending and protecting individual rights by regulating what may or may not be posted in the new media.
The logic isn’t so different or novel as to suggest even for one moment it qualifies as an original line of thinking. If we really consider it on its merits, it’s just an extension of the concept of globalization. Globalization compels all of us to accept the reality we can no more return to the cottage industry even if we wanted to beat our keyboards into ploughshares. There is a finality to the equation of choice. In this decision nexus we are left with no option other than to surrender ourselves to the inexorable effects of globalization by re-defining how we may choose to live, work and play. Why then do we continue to insist that the new media should necessary abide by immersing itself into the old and inherited ethos of command and control? Does it for one moment appear ironical that we may appear to be even progressive when it comes to the abstraction of globalization, yet remain all together bovine and largely unimaginative when if confronts us directly in the form of the new media?
This is where is it important for policymakers to seriously consider crafting a strategic vision which will allow values to migrate to meet the challenge posed by a new media. At the heart of the strategy is the need to carve out common ground where even those who may agree to disagree will hopefully agree this is where we really need to unite to face the challenges of the making the best out of the new media. Doing otherwise will simply mean we will simply languish by trying to control that which we may not even be able to control – the new media.
(By Scholarboy / Politics / Internet / Socio – EP 994397 -2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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