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Community Moderation: Thoughts from the Internet Regulatory Reform Seminar

As part of the work that I have done with other bloggers on the "Proposals for Internet Freedom in Singapore", we did a seminar and here are some of my thoughts outlined during that session in 2008.

Organised by the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, the seminar on internet regulatory reform happened today at the URA Centre. About 50 people attended the event, excluding the organizers and the bloggers who are involved in the drafting of "Proposals for Internet Freedom in Singapore". The aim of this seminar is to present the proposals and at the same solicit some thoughts and comments from the public. Together with Cherian George, Alex Au (Yawning Bread), Choo Zheng Xi, Ng Ejay, Arun Mahizhnan (Institute of Policy Studies) and Mohan Gopalan, we presented the various aspects and sat on a panel to discuss the proposals. In the process, we drew interesting comments and questions from the audience.  After a vibrant discussion, I will like to outline some ideas about the formation of Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) mentioned in the community moderation section of the proposal.

For some time, I have been a strong advocate of the community moderation as an alternative to internet regulation. The intention is not to replace regulation but rather to provide a stop gap measure that deals with the emerging complexities of online communities in the Internet. A simple hypothetical example is that a young and immature blogger can make unintentional statements that might cross the OB markers accidentally. The instant reaction is to report to the police and let the law take action. Imagine in a more mature society like the UK, the more immediate reaction is to bring the matter to the attention to the civil society and only take action if the blogger is really inciting violence offline. The idea of community moderation in Singapore serves two purposes: (i) to educate the individual that  freedom of speech comes with responsibility and (ii) striving towards a mature society that  allow open debate and diversity.

One of the questions which was posed to the panel is the question on how the structure of the IC3 committee can be created and how it can be enforced. We did not elaborate on the details on how a committee can be created and the roles and responsibilities of the IC3. Instead, each one of us offer a different perspective on how it can be formulated and created. After some thinking on my way home, I sketched out three possible models outlining their advantages and disadvantages respectively:

  1. A formal IC3 committee seeded by the government (top down approach): One proposal of the IC3 is to follow the model of films repeal board, where selected individuals from various walks of society are invited to listen to the makers of a film that is banned and made a decision whether it should be repealed. In this model, the committee can be seeded by the establishment and slowly the committee can co-opt members from the Internet community or the industry where the technology is evolving. There are two drawbacks with this model. The first issue is the legitimacy of this IC3 committee and some bloggers might see this committee as cronies to the establishment. The second issue is that  unlike the films  repeal board, the action taken by the films committee is of a pre-emptive nature, i.e. the film can only be released upon a fair hearing and decision with the film repeals committee. In the case of controversial incidents in the Internet, the action taken by the IC3 committee is of a reactive nature. Hence a formal IC3 committee may not be quick enough to act before the police is alerted if the blogger has totally crossed the line on race and religion issues.
  2. An formal IC3 committee totally formed by the blogosphere (ground up approach): In this model, the government does not play a part in forming the IC3 committee. Instead, it is built from the blogosphere. It starts off from an informal group of bloggers who are ready to flag or advise a blogger in the case of the blog entry crossing the OB markers. This model will take a longer time and some experience from the group of bloggers. Similarly, the legitimacy issue will be questioned. The critics will most likely ask, "What is the moral authority of these group of bloggers?" or "Why should we let them police the blogosphere?" If the IC3’s job is to enforce, then the legitimacy argument is valid. Unfortunately, we never conceive the IC3 to be an agency of enforcement. Its role is to serve the purposes of promoting responsible and free speech and issue a condemnation such that the blogger is aware that what’s being said is against the social norm.
  3. An informal code for all bloggers that naturally creates an IC3 structure in the blogosphere: This has been tried by several bloggers including myself and failed. The idea is to establish a code of ethics and let the bloggers decide whether they want to abide it. In this model, the group of bloggers select a set of guiding principles that both demonstrate free and responsible speech or best practices in blogging such that they can abide an informal code of behaviour. In this model, the entire blogger community which signed up for the code is the IC3 structure. The majority will be able to persuade the single blogger (who is part of the group) for irresponsible behaviour. Like all models, it has a potential drawback: not everyone will want to adhere to a code of ethics.

I do have a personal opinion on this matter and I preferred the third model on the basis that everyone is responsible for encouraging free and responsible speech and not a selected group of individuals. While we cannot transition to the third model immediately as our society is struggling with political and social maturity, something must be in place for the transition. That transition will be the first and second model, and the question which we ask will be, "What is the roles and responsibilities of such a committee? How is action taken when a blogger trepasses?" One immediate answer which I brought up is the following: the IC3 committee can flag and issue a condemnation to the blogger who wrote the controversial comments, and it is up to the blogger to do it or not. If the blogger does not, the law enforcement can take place. The real function is to give a period of time to allow some open debate on sensitive issues in Singapore. If we are seriously striving towards a thinking society, then we better start doing something about open and free debate on issues and not name-calling.

That comes to my last point. I don’t have an answer to the questions posed but offered one viewpoint, "The devil always lies in the details."

I am glad that several members from the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) were present at the seminar. Mr Cheong Yip Seng, chairman of the AIMS committee had offered us his thoughts on the proposal. Tan Tarn How from Institute of Policy Studies and Siew Kum Hong, the nominated member of Parliament were present. I acknowledged and thanked several members from the public who have contributed their comments and views on the proposal. Do check out Mohd Hisham‘s twitter and plurks on the timeline of how the event transpired.

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