In 1991, Singapore's National Computer Board began a study on how information technology could be harnessed to improve the quality of life in Singapore.
Also in that year, the Ministry of Information and the Arts began its once-a-decade review of censorship laws and standards.
From both reports, it was clear that neither technology nor censorship could stand without one considering the other. Singapore wants to harness new technologies for development, but its citizenry also wants censorship controls in place.
This paper looks at censorship of the Internet. It is part of a larger study into how Singapore proposes to censor new technologies without losing the advantages these technologies confer.
Basis of Censorship in Singapore
Censorship survives because of the widespread support of Singaporeans, as a recent survey by the first author found.
The Singapore government believes that as there is anecdotal evidence that media can have negative effects, it is better to err on caution by censoring. This caution may be due to a history of racial riots, seen as a result of the uninhibited reporting of news events.
Principles of Censorship
The Singapore government has drawn up some censorship guidelines. First, materials for homes are more heavily censored than those for businesses. Second, materials for the young are more heavily censored. Third, materials considered artistic are less heavily censored. Finally, materials consumed by fewer people are less heavily censored. Some of these principles come into conflict in the practice of censorship, especially censorship of the Internet.
Problems in Censorship of the Internet
The Internet poses censorship problems. First, it explodes information onto users. But the number of censors at work has failed to match this explosive growth.
Second, while the information tends to be less mass and more customised, the Internet is a potential mass medium. This brings a problem for Singapore because the greater reach of material implies a heavier degree of censorship.
Third, the Internet is an example of a convergent medium--with mail, computing-software and news-reading functions. There is no censorship of the mail, a little censorship of computing for pornographic software and heavy censorship of the news. The medium therefore falls into cracks in regulation.
Fourth, there is no central controlling body for the Internet.
Fifth, the development of legislation and case-law invariably lags behind changes in technology.
The Singapore government has looked into using technology in censorship. The National University of Singapore, for example, has different servers for staff and students. The idea is that staff will get less heavily censored materials than students.
But the case of Richard DePew's ARMM (Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation) in the West suggests that censorship using technology does not work and may even affect other functions.
It is possible to create a separate server to censor Usenet groups, but this is costly (about US$70,000 a year) and the labour shortage in Singapore rules out that possibility.
Instead, Usenet news groups are censored using government guidelines. For example, Usenet groups accessed through the local PTT, Singapore Telecom, are more heavily censored than those accessed through the local universities. Also, the Unix shell used by Singapore Telecom has been deliberately crippled to remove some functions.
Recently, through some misinterpretation of an official request, public Internet accounts of one Singapore service were scanned for .GIF files. Of 80,000 files scanned, five were found pornographic by Singapore standards and users were issued warnings.
Besides an act covering criminal misuse, Singapore has little regulation on computers for now. Current laws ban pornography. There is talk of amending the Films Act to cover both moving and still images--thus including computer pornography, but the amendment is still under study.
The Singapore government knows that it cannot do much to censor the Internet. But it refuses to give up without a fight.
The main control is to limit access--the rationale being that only the determined would get at the materials and not the casual users.
Singapore's case is instructive in that it is trying to both control information and yet benefit from the Information Age. Current thinking suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve both aims. Nevertheless, Singapore is trying. (700 words)