What is the point of an internet “Code of Conduct”?
Written by Ng E-Jay
28 April 2012
I simply don’t see the logic or the point of trying to develop an internet “Code of Conduct”.
How is anyone going to enforce such a code of conduct given the free-wheeling nature of the internet that knows no geographical boundaries? How is any organization supposed to develop a code of conduct that will reflect the overall sentiment of netizens without incurring vast skepticism pertaining to their political neutrality or lack thereof?
And what is the purpose of it all, when there are already adequate laws in place to deal with destructive behaviour like incitement to violence, sedition, sowing racial hatred, defamation, or spreading malicious rumours?
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, first mooted the idea of having an internet “Code of Conduct” on Monday 23 April when he spoke at a dialogue organised by the Singapore Press Club.
He said that one way of achieving what he terms a more “balanced” and “responsible” internet was for the online community to create and uphold a code of conduct.
Dr Yaacob said that “all of us have to decide how new media will help develop a good society and what values our young should grow up with“. (ST, “3 ways to get netizens to be responsible”, 24 April)
He also said that “there are people out there who want to make sure the internet doesn’t get killed by the downsides … and they are prepared to be part of the process“.
The internet “downsides”
Just what are the “downsides” that Dr Yaacob is referring to? The minister cited the recent examples of spreading rumours that children had been kidnapped, and that of the wrong boy being targeted by netizens for upsetting his neighbours with noisy drumming.
“Out of habit or even genuine concern, some may pass on the rumour without verifying, leading to unnecessary distress or panic. The bite-sized nature of such media also means that lines get taken out of context,” said Dr Yaacob. (TODAY, “Singaporeans must be aware of internet’s possible downsides: Yaacob”, 24 April)
And although not explicitly mentioned, Dr Yaacoh must also have in mind more serious forms of destructive behaviour, like making inflammatory comments concerning race, language or religion, or exhibiting extreme xenophobia towards either locals or foreigners, and so on.
However, there are already adequate laws in place to deal with such destructive behaviour, and in the past several years, there have been more than ample examples to show that law enforcement is both willing and able to crack down (whether justly or unjustly) on what it deems to be inflammatory speech that touch on race or religion.
In addition, members of the establishment have engaged lawyers to ask websites to take down what they deem as defamatory content, accompanied with the threat of lawsuits.
In fact, there are concerns that current civil defamation laws are in serious need of an overhaul, as they lead to the wealthy elite being able to use their financial muscle to censor legitimate criticism. Developing a formal internet “Code of Conduct” will only make matters worse, as that will only give the elite more opportunities to clamp down on legitimate dissent.
And although laymen might not always have the financial means to address less serious cases of civil defamation, those cases involving criminal defamation are also covered by the penal code, and in such situations the public can address grievances by lodging police reports. Given historical precedence, I have no reason to doubt the willingness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system to deal with genuine cases of criminal defamation.
I believe that given the context of Dr Yaacob’s remarks, he was referring to less serious deviant behaviour such as deliberately or recklessly spreading misleading information, or displaying xenophobia that is (thankfully) not accompanied by threats of physical violence, such as China student’s Sun Xu remarks comparing Singapore citizens to certain breeds of canines.
But is there really a need to develop a formal code of conduct to cover such deviant behaviour? Sun Xu was disciplined by NUS after an outpouring of rage on the part of netizens. Even those people who were suspected to have deliberately spread false rumours about kidnappings have also been investigated by the police.
When internet brickbat Gopalan Nair spread false online rumours (albeit in a tongue-in-cheek fashion) about the alleged demise of a certain prominent political leader in Singapore, he was taken to task very promptly by netizens, some of whom criticized him in the harshest of terms for a very bad sense of humour and lack of common decency (I was one of them).
More recently, when a young lady called National Servicemen weak after one serviceman had died in the line of duty, netizens also put her in her place and told her in no uncertain terms that such behaviour was not to be tolerated.
So as can be seen from these examples, netizens have already informally adopted certain unwritten rules and an intuitive understanding of what should constitute good and bad behaviour.
Is there a need then to try to formalize this into a “Code of Conduct”, when such a formality can easily lend itself to abuse, not to mention the vast amount of skepticism that would be directed at such an attempt from netizens who would very rightfully doubt the political neutrality of those in charge of creating this “Code of Conduct”?
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim also proposed encouraging the setting up of websites that offer “serious viewpoints“, and “that can continue to offer constructive ideas and useful suggestions“.
This begs the question — who, if anyone, should decide what is “constructive” or “useful”? Surely not a committee comprising of bureaucrats who would inevitably look out for their own political interests. Surely not a group of internet vigilantes of questionable motives appointed by quasi-political grassroots to monitor online discourse like a pack of hounds ready to strike when their own values are under threat.
Surely no single entity should decide, other than the collective wisdom of all internet participants, as has been the case thus far.
If the government is serious about encouraging bloggers to write constructively and maturely, they must take the first step by loosening up the political climate, and not wield the threat of lawsuits at the slightest provocation. They must show that they are not “deaf to criticism” as Lim Swee Say famously remarked to Low Thia Khiang, but are in fact appreciative of criticism.
When the authorities display sincerity and maturity in embracing opposing views, then netizens will be encouraged to respond constructively and maturely. Internet discourse will never mature under the oppressive thumb of an authoritarian regime.
Conclusion – Don’t talk COC
A formal internet “Code of Conduct”, or COC for short, is not necessary in a cyber environment where netizens have already developed an informal, intuitive understanding of what should constitute good or bad behaviour, and when there are already adequate laws in place to deal with more serious destructive behaviour like inflammatory speech or incitement to violence. Laws that apply in the offline world already apply equally in the online world.
In addition, such a “Code of Conduct” will only give the wealthy elite yet another opportunity to try to censor legitimate criticism in addition to the use of lawsuits that obviously disadvantage those who do not have the same financial muscle.
There will also be great skepticism towards those in charge of developing such a formal code of conduct, regardless of who those people are. No entity or organization can ever be completely neutral. Even a working group supposedly comprised of netizens of all walks of life will be burdened with its fair share of skepticism. Remember what happened to the Association of Bloggers (ABS)? That did not survive one week!
There is no need for the government to try to develop an internet “Code of Conduct” to try to manage deviant behaviour, or worse, as yet another attempt to clamp down on dissent against government policies or the political system in Singapore. Such an attempt is not likely to gain much traction or be enforceable given the free-wheeling nature of the internet that is not constrained by geography.
Instead, there is a need for the government itself to loosen up and open up, to embrace new ideas rather than talk down to citizens. If the government wants netizens to behave constructively, it must first begin by playing fair itself.