Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It is the govt that has to be regulated not the online news ...

It is almost a month since my last posting. It is a bit hard to explain why I have not written as much as I did in the past. There are no major changes in my life except that I'm getting older. Since I started blogging in 2005, the Internet has enabled Singaporeans to have  deeper understanding of the system they live in. It allowed the underlying causes of problems faced by Singaporeans to be discussed objectively and trade-offs in govt polices to be seen with greater clarity.  This deeper understanding does not help the PAP to maintain its dominant position.

Despite having the whole mainstream media on its side,  the PAP has struggled to explain the benefits of the system it has in place and convince the people that old policies and schemes should remain as they are.  The less democratic aspects of the system of govt is becoming less justifiable and less acceptable to Singaporeans. Even as the aspirations for progress and change builds up, the PAP wants to maintain its dominance making as few changes as possible. To do so,  it has to control the Singaporeans' access to information. The PAP wants control and influence over the online news media that has increased in popularity in the last few years. The new MDA regulations gives the PAP govt broad powers to do this.

Under the code, prohibited content includes "material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws."

The MDA on Tuesday said websites that have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month and publish at least one local news article per week over a period of two months must obtain an annual licence.

The MDA said the licence guidelines will "apply to all content on the news sites, including readers' comments on the news sites".

The maximum penalty for illegal broadcasting under the Broadcasting Act is a fine of $200,000 or three years' jail or both. But for sites that are licensed, failing to comply with conditions could result either in financial penalties or the licence being suspended or revoked.[Link]

What worries me is not just the use of harsh laws to limit the freedom of Singaporeans and disable them from effecting change but what the PAP govt can does under a cloak of secrecy due to absence of laws protecting the privacy and freedom of Singaporeans.  

Singapore has a weak legal regime to protect privacy and has deployed extensive surveillance systems.[Link]

You may have missed the news 2 days ago about a  US NSA (America's agency that does surveillance)  technician leaking information about the NSA's PRISM system that allows the US govt to access all servers of major US infocomm companies including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo! etc giving the US govt the technical capability to spy on its own citizens. PRISM gives the US govt access to all emails, VoIP,  files and messages of Internet users.

"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to" , Whistle-blower Edward Snowden[Link]

While the technical capability exists to spy on its citizens, the NSA is bounded by American privacy laws that limits its surveillance activity to "any customers of participating corporations who live outside the United States, or American citizens whose communications include web content of people outside the United States."[Link].

According to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, PRISM cannot be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the United States. [Link].

Unfortunately the laws protecting Singaporeans from such surveillance is weak and there agencies such as the CSIT (Centre for Strategic Infocomm Technologies) that operate in secrecy and are known to be involved in surveillance activities from the type of equipment it procures. Without a strong regulatory and legal framework in place, there is a big risk that the interests of Singaporeans will be compromised.

Singapore, where authorities keep a close eye on opposition groups and political commentary, some people use encryption programs to avoid surveillance.

"If you are concerned about electronic eavesdropping, you can use pidgin IM - it has an encryption module for instant messaging," said Donaldson Tan, editor of socio-political website New Asia Republic.

"There is also Tor client for online anonymity," he said, referring to two popular free software programs developed by volunteer programmers to guard against network surveillance.

Asked if he was concerned whether the U.S. government would share surveillance information with Singapore authorities, given the friendly ties between the two countries, Tan said: "The U.S. is really hard to read".

A Singapore government spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Several people in the region said the reports of government access to e-mails and phone calls were not surprising.

"This latest revelation, if true, is really no more than putting proof to suspicion," said Howard Lee, a blogger who often writes about political and social issues in Singapore.

"As citizens of democracies, our response should not be fear, but a concerted voice to demand accountability and transparency. I believe this is the current aim of civil society groups in Singapore."[Link]

The existence of secret organisations operating in the absence of regulation that protects the privacy of Singaporeans from surveillance by the state creates fear among those who legitimately oppose the govt because they hold a different point of view.  There is no reason to govern Singapore with such repressive measures that does not exist anywhere else in the developed world except to maintain dominance at a time when there is a growing desire for change.