What if there is a Blogger Registration Act?

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Recently, a Civil War is happening in the universe of Marvel comic books. In this major crossover event, it is no longer about super heroes fighting against an ultimate villain, but among themselves. The series centers around a newly enacted Super-human Registration Act. The act when passed into law, would require all persons in the United States with superhuman abilities who wish to use those abilities to fight crime to register with the federal government and receive proper training as law enforcement officials [1]. The Act divided the super heroes into two camps, with Iron Man taking the side that all the super heroes should reveal their secret identities and Captain America champions the privacy and rights of the superheroes to keep their identity secret. In a thought experiment approach, I examine the implications of having a Blogger Registration Act in Singapore.

Let me start with a hypothetical scenario. Suppose, a particular criminal offence triggered by a blogger’s insuination to violence is distilled into the real world, the government has decided to take control after letting things run its natural course. They decide that all the bloggers are required to register themselves under a Blogger Registration Act. In this act, the blogger is required to register his real name and his background with the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). If you have been blogging under an anonymous identity, will you register under such an act?

There are two schools of thought: the first belongs to the group who thinks that they should have the right to be anonymous and say whatever they like and the second who decide that they should reveal their identities to MICA. Both cases are equally justified in deciding whether to register for the bloggers registration act. What follows, is that the government decides to enact the law and force the opposition to register. If the opposition refuses, they will take them by “force” and deny them their rights. I would really love to ask for a vote among all the bloggers in the Singapore blogosphere which side they would be on. It would show their diversity of opinions on the issue.

Of course, the above scenario is an exaggeration of what the theme of the article is about. So, what is the real theme behind this article? The theme of this article is about the right to privacy. In [2],

Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to keep their lives and personal affairs out of public view, or to control the flow of information about themselves. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity although it is often most highly valued by people who are publicly known. Privacy can be seen as an aspect of security–one in which trade-offs between the interests of one group and another can become particularly clear.

Perhaps, it is not known to many that since Singapore follows the British legislative system, Singaporeans do not possess an explicit right to privacy [3]. Consequently, we have several laws that resulted from not having the right to privacy. For example, we have Computer Misuse Act (Chapter 50A) [4], Electronic Transcations Act [5], Sedition Act [6]. In all these legislation, Singapore has taken the approach that they reserve the right to convict someone if they committed an offence related to these acts.

The right to privacy is not a clear cut black and white issue. There is no right and wrong because both sides of the house have valid arguments for and against the issue. There are two perspectives to the issue, from the view of the government and the other from the individual. The government might be forced to take action if the individual has committed a crime. If the individual hides under the veil of anonymity, the government might require any one of the above acts to acquire the information to find the culprit. Here is the dilemma, do we sacrifice the right to privacy for the individual in order to justify the ends of nabbing the criminal? Hence it is not easy for any policy or law-maker to enact a legislation that can satisfies both sides. Ultimately, our government has taken the “ends justify the means” approach.

In a free society, you don’t need a reason to allow something to be legal. You require a reason to make something illegal. Oftentimes, we hear anonymous bloggers champion the right to privacy. Granted their point, the counter question to them, is that how do we stop people writing defammatory and seditious remarks under an anonymous identity?

During the enactment of the Patriot Act in the US, I had a debate with my European friends in the UK. I devised a paradox to justify the need to break the right to privacy. Here is the paradox. Suppose, a criminal has hidden a nuclear bomb in the city and he is the only person who knows where the location of the bomb is. The police has only a few hours before the nuclear bomb detonates and kills millions of people. As the policeman, you stumbled upon a clue that a person named X could be that criminal and interestingly, you have the unfortunate problem that you are not exactly sure whether person X is really the culprit, but only circumstantial evidence showed that he could be. You need to get the information from the phone company about this person. The phone company refuses. What would be your course of action?

I profess not to have the right answer when I tossed the paradox across the table, but I offer a solution based on Bayesian inference. What is the probability of this person being a criminal, given the likelihood that he would commit the crime and the evidence that is pointing towards him? If that probability is high, I argue that it is justified to break the right to privacy to acquire the information we need.

Of course, such theoretical thought experiments are problematic in many ways, and subject to objections from other thinkers. I would leave the reader to decide whether we should have the right to privacy and fight for that right or let the government decide how much that right is for us. Of course, the other is open this article to debate and get a better sense what our view to the right of privacy means to us.

by Bernard Leong of SG Entrepreneurs

Author’s Note: The opinions here expressed are strictly his own, and do not represent the organizations he works for.

[1] Wikipedia on Civil War, Marvel Comics, 2006.
[2] Wikipedia on Right to Privacy
[3] Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, 16 September 1963.
[4] Computer Misuse Act (Chapter 50A)
[5] Electronic Transactions Act (Act 25 of 1998)
[6] Sedition Act (Chapter 290)

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist