Thursday, May 15, 2008

Freedom in the Net (pun intended)

I hope the title was punny enough.

Regulation of internet media content has been proposed by an independent team to be expressed through community moderation.

Ng E-Jay wrote in the Straits Times Online Forum (May 14):

"The group believes that many of society's legitimate concerns about the abuse of free speech can be addressed through community moderation. One possible approach is to organise a citizen-based Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3) which would issue recommendations whenever controversies arise regarding Internet content, for example, offering its views when content providers are alleged to have behaved irresponsibly. The objective over time is to subject Internet content to public debate, replacing intervention by the state with the people's own judgment."

I think the issue of representation poses a huge dilemma for such a team or committee. Despite consisting of individuals of diverse background and experience, how can we be certain that the committee will act in the various interests of the community at large? What are the limits to their pluralist policies and measures?

It is also assumed that the committee of individuals are of a certain socio-economic background, of a certain education and literacy level. Then how can we be certain they act in the general interest of the community or society at large?

Who and what is the "community"? Does the majority vote/view of the "community" count more than the minority vote/view? To which groups do the decisions of the "community" benefit, and to what extent? In the wake of such decisions by the "committee", who gains more and who loses?

Who is the "public" in "public debate"? Is "public debate" all inclusive? What about the less technologically savvy? What about the less articulate? Surely, they have concerns and interests too, but there exists barriers to their participation in the contestation of interests.

When we talk about "internet freedom", it is "internet freedom" for who, what groups, which socio-economic stratum, literacy level, gender, age, political beliefs, even sexuality - in the end, which group of people benefit the most.

In agreement with some of the proposals made by the 13 bloggers, namely the proposal to abolish election advertising, I believe everyone has a right to information. Thus, such a proposal is obviously premised on the belief that everyone deserves to know what they would want to know - in this case, political party information. After all, a party like the PAP has first-hand information from the civil service and intelligence departments ISD and SID (which ultimately follow the directions set out by various Ministers), plus a huge community of grassroots volunteers/leaders and even the People's Association (given that MPs and Ministers have direct access and leadership over these groups), so it could always compete with opposition parties in the domain of the internet media. Furthermore, I don't think the ruling party has anything to worry about.

When we warn about taking "freedom" for granted, we often conceive of the repercussions of people who do take it for granted, and abuse it. However, this is only at one level of the problem. At another level, we need to appreciate the social and political reality and context in which "freedom" resides. We should ask the question, whenever "freedom" is concerned, to what or whom is "freedom" does concern? Whose "freedom" are we talking about? "Freedom" for who, for what and from what? Does this "freedom" empower certain groups, yet oppress others? Does this "freedom" challenge or sustain existing mindsets and ideologies? What does it take to be "free"?

And when we encourage "responsibility", what kind of "responsibility" are we talking about? Is it a form of responsibility which benefits certain groups of people or uphold certain belief systems? Does everyone have the same perception of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Can we be free from responsibility? Is it because by being what society deems as "responsible", we slowly struggle to maintain our individual happiness and survival needs?

If responsibility is defined by a moral code, established and protected by a moral numerical majority, doesn't this kind of "responsibility" only serve to exclusively and unequivocally protect their interests? In a sense, the role of "responsibility" is to protect its insecurity and paranoia. It has become so that we do not question the definition of "responsibility" itself.

Society, its system and institutions, all do not incentivise the questionings targeted at the foundations of their beliefs. We are all lawyers in a sense, where we practise the "law", but never question it. There are so many sanctions, legal and social, against such questioning.

The moral of the story is simple. You can't make everyone happy. Then again, the definition of "happy" here depends on how you are socialised into defining it.

1 comment:

Wei Haur said...

"The objective over time is to subject Internet content to public debate, replacing intervention by the state with the people's own judgment."

this is, of course, assuming that the individual is not mature enough to judge for himself.

if so, wouldn't "intervention by the state" turn into "intervention by some other representative body"? does this change anything about the status quo?

i think we should give the internet community more credit. everybody was an impressioned newbie once, drowning in the sea of voices clamouring to be heard.

after some participation, we learn not to take others' views at face value.

in my opinion, this is a trait that should not be denied to the next generation of internet users.