Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Media Regulation

There's this open call for bloggers who are interested in submitting a bottom/ground-up report to influence policy on new/internet media content regulation. That is a good move. It is good that people from the ground are actively in dialogue with the higher-ups.

One mentality that most of us can play down, or perhaps do away with, is treating the government like the enemy. Discourse becomes skewed and in the interest of fairness, why not treat the government as a friend? Maybe I'll discuss that in future entries.

I believe the main question is: How should internet media be regulated?

Beneath this question is a host of other questions:

1) To what extent should internet media content be regulated?

2) To what extent should the difference between regulation of mainstream media and internet media be?

3) Should regulation strive to strike a balance between rights and obligations? And who is best to decide what constitutes a balance?

4) What kind of regulation is best for an environment/space that consists of various interests from various domains?

I for one, argue against the centralisation of media regulation to encompass both "old" and new media. Although centralised regulation may unequivocally establish a common set of regulatory codes for all media domains, and the implementation of which is straightforward and easily understood with minimal confusion, how does this affect the larger range of interests that exist in new media?

In mainstream media in Singapore, there are certain interests that exist. Nation-building is one. Social responsibilities and civic consciousness, leading to peace and harmony, are another (which necessitates the occasional reporting of "good news" for various demographics in the population). Political legitimacy may be another, although some people will not think so. Economic and commercial sustenance is of course an important reason too, and of course, to sustain, you have to be a "good boy" (pardon the gender bias).

In new media, where the ordinary person is the content creator, there are a lot more interests out there other than the ones I have mentioned. Civil causes for example. Citizen journalism, as some netizens would like to call it. People like myself who like to share our opinions are also part of this space - the self-interested. So what kind of regulation is best to accomodate these diverse interests?

Notice I use the word "accomodate". I do not say "discipline", "punish" or "control". The existing mainstream media content regulation tends towards this end. What will happen to civil rights and diverse interests of society if media regulation is centralised? Should we then have a different set of regulatory codes for new media?

I believe we should have a different set of regulatory codes for new media, namely internet media. The law should always keep its finger on the pulse of society and technology. Instead of trying to broadly cover as many aspects of society and life under one common code or statute, regulation of media content for example should be multi-tiered and separately developed to accomodate the changes in technology and the different domains of media and emerging new media.

Horses for courses. The approach should be a horses for courses one. You need to have specific regulatory codes to cater to different domains of media, each consisting differing interests from different segments of society. You may ask, how can we then accomodate differing interests and social responsibility? What if these interests are not considered socially responsible interests? Any way, who is going to decide this?

When you are "given" more rights in the form of being a content creator on a blog, what are the obligations expected of you? Since the ordinary folk does not have the privilege/right to voice his/her opinions on a daily basis through the Straits Times, there are not many obligations expected of him/her. But eliminate the gatekeeper and you have now direct access to audiences and consumers of media. The content creator now directly faces the market of differing interests.

I may not push for a centralised regulatory system, but neither do I push for self-regulation. If the market handled itself, the internet media will be ruled and decided by the educated elite, the technologically savvy and the eloquent. It will become what it was principally against should there be self-regulation. Self-regulation may not be entirely for social responsibility, depending on which side you are looking from.

In the short run, self-regulation may work, because people from the ground should have a say in establishing some preliminary framework for how cyberspace content can (not) be regulated. In the long run, a fluid regulatory system is required, something that can change to accomodate changes in technology. If we are going to have tele-hologram conferencing and advertising as part of new media in the future, we should create a new set of regulatory codes for this particular medium and refrain from trying to broaden the definitions and jurisdiction of existing media regulatory codes.

It is kind of ironic that we are not "taking the pragmatic approach" to this issue. I thought that is the mantra of Singaporean leaders. If you want to take the pragmatic approach, use the horses for courses approach.

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