The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which comprises Google, Facebook, eBay, Yahoo and Salesforce, blasts our Media Development Authority’s (MDA) new licensing requirements for Internet news sites. A strongly worded letter sent by the AIC on 14th June criticised the new regime as having “onerous, regressive and untenable” conditions, and being “unwarranted and excessive”, among other things.
There is basically nothing wrong with the previous rules. Yet the government, for reasons we cannot comprehend, felt it necessary to introduce new rules.
At times I don’t know whether I should feel sad for our government. In this day and age, they still think they can exert some form of influence or control over Internet content. You can’t censor the Internet. Publishers can take their content elsewhere. Readers will follow where the content goes.
Now, if the Internet cannot be censored, why do we bother about the new licensing regime? Well, basically we don’t want to play hide and seek. We want the freedom to speak and write, without being concerned about the medium, platform, or place. You want to be yourself on the Internet (or not, but that’s a personal choice), and not have to hide behind a pseudonym.
It’s easy to work around the rules, so why bother to make them in the first place?
Such an oppressive environment has more negative consequences than perceived benefits for the government too. By sending all their citizens underground, it becomes more difficult to monitor and track the vibe of the people. (I think most of us agree this is a common problem with our ruling party. They are out-of-touch with the ground, and their lackeys are not helping any.)
The Internet has been such a wonderful tool that enables the government to easily reach out to all its citizens. In the pre-Internet days, it was so difficult for the government to feel the pulse of the people. Formal channels like meet-the-people sessions have very limited reach, and may not even be accurate in picking up what’s really happening on the ground. The Internet, on the other hand, enables you to just “drop in” and “eavesdrop” on the goings-on in the community.
I’m not talking about the NSA-style of spying on people. The Internet enables government officials and political office holders to mingle in cyberspace and see what’s going in the rawest form. Uncensored.
Why then does it make any sense to want to reign in some control over the Internet?
The government has clarified that the new regime will apply to news sites with that certain level of readership. MDA will inform sites that they meet that requirement and that they will have to apply for the license. This seems not only to be rather ambiguous, but also arbitrary.
There are just 10 news sites now that are required to be licensed. Most of us are not affected. For most practical purposes, the new regime hasn’t changed anything right now. The concern, however, is that the new regime seems to be setting the stage for bigger things to come. Furthermore, it raises questions about what the government is thinking about. Suffice to say, no one seems convinced by the canned responses dished out by the government.
If you’re interested, AIC’s letter to the Minister of Communications and Information is published on their website.