Balancing trust and regulations

The issue of trust loomed large at a protest two weeks ago against recently introduced regulations for news websites.

Called Free My Internet, it was organised by several bloggers and editors of sociopolitical sites. Though none of them have so far been directly affected by the ruling, which requires news websites to be individually licensed, protest organisers decried it as an attempt to clamp down on online discourse.

Several speakers took to the stage at Hong Lim Park to criticise the Government's assurance that it is acting "judiciously", arguing that this law places too much power in the state's hands. Why should citizens trust that the Government will not exploit the ruling for political interests, they asked.

But the tables were turned on them hours later at a press conference with representatives from online and mainstream media. The bloggers were asked who would function as a check on their websites - in other words, why should the public trust them?

It is a pertinent question, given the lukewarm public response to the movement thus far, which has been spearheaded by well-known sociopolitical sites such as The Online Citizen (TOC), TR Emeritus and Public House.

About 4,000 have signed the Free My Internet petition to do away with the regulations. While the number by itself may sound sizeable, consider the fact that these websites draw many more readers - TOC says it alone attracts more than 170,000 visitors a month. In this context, 4,000 accounts for a very small percentage of readers.

Even fewer people attended the protest two weeks ago. Organisers estimated they attracted 2,000, less than half the crowd for the first Population White Paper protest.

Some Singaporeans may support the fundamental cause of Free My Internet, but could have kept their distance because they may not agree with the way the bloggers have conducted their campaign or their highly critical tone.

But my sense is that many Singaporeans did not bother to show up because they are in two minds about having a completely free Internet.

On the one hand, many believe websites should have the freedom to publish anything. In a survey of more than 2,300 Singaporeans conducted in May last year by research company Blackbox, only a third felt sites should be properly regulated like news providers, while nearly half felt websites should be able to say what they want. The rest were undecided.

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