Sunday, April 23, 2006

INDIVIDUALS ON THE INTERNET DURING ELECTIONS, PART 2

After a couple of weeks of confusion, the Government has clarified some of the rules surrounding the use of the Internet during the elections. The clarifications were contained in a lengthy Straits Times interview with information minister Lee Boon Yang, published on April 15. As suspected (see previous post), the Government's earlier statement in Parliament included some positions that were not backed by existing laws and regulations.

The key clarifications concern the status of the bulk of internet users, including amateur bloggers. Contrary to the Government's earlier claims, the electioneering ban only kicks in if and when they are asked to register as "political" sites. Until they are asked to register, they are free to carry on as before (subject of course to other laws of the land, such as defamation and contempt of court, that apply equally outside or within the election period). Registration, by the way, is a relatively simple administrative matter of filling out a form declaring the identity of the individuals behind a site, its source of funding, and so on. It is touted as a way to emphasise the need for accountability in political expression.

The minister also acknowledged that certain types of internet use are outside the ambit of the internet electioneering regulations:

1. EMAIL NEWSLETTERS

As noted in my previous blog, the registration requirement at present only extends to websites. People exclusively using email clients (such as Outlook) presumably cannot be asked to register under the present rules. If they cannot be asked to register, they cannot be classified as "relevant persons" under the election rules, and therefore cannot be banned from internet electioneering. While the minister was not so explicit, he did concede that there was a loophole:

"As for individual SMSes and e-mails, we consider these as private communication and they will remain the private domain of individuals. I agree that some people may hide behind this façade of private communication and use e-mails, or a chain-mail system to conduct election advertising."

He added the usual warning: "But they should bear in mind that other laws also apply to e-mail communication. These include libel. One should not hastily dash off e-mails in the heat of the moment and live to regret a rash act later. So think first, and then write knowing fully the consequences of such comments."

The upshot of this is that there is no "prior restraint" in email communication, only the possibility of "post-publication" punishment.

2. OVERSEAS-HOSTED SITES

When asked how the Government would deal with anonymous blogs or those hosted overseas, the minister said that the Media Development Authority had "oversight on these matters". Note that he did not use the term "jurisdiction", suggesting an acknowledgement that the regulators can only watch and cannot act against an overseas-based site. The minister said that, in any case, the Government had "always adopted a light touch for the Internet". He added: "So I will not lose much sleep over these scenarios."

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