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Singapore Puts Online on a Leash

Will protests by Western companies hurt its rep as a key international business hub?

It takes a lot for Singapore’s docile citizens to hit the streets in an anti-government demonstration, especially over something like Internet regulation.

Yet that’s what happened last month following the hurried introduction of regulations that require popular websites to put up coin as a surety and adhere to government censorship rules. The following week, hundreds of local bloggers turned their screens black for a day, and up to 1,000 people held a rally in Hong Lim Park, claiming a setback in freedom of speech.

Singapore is the latest example of a government trying to stanch the increasing flow of information suddenly available to citizens. It’s a worldwide issue, particularly for rulers in historically closed societies. Those trying to tighten the online spigot include Pakistan, Bahrain and Ethiopia, all reducing Internet freedoms since January 2011, according to a report by Reuters. China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia also greatly limit online news, and many authoritarian leaders must be shuddering at the availability of “forbidden” information on the Web, which has taken quantum leaps since the days of the Arab Spring.

Last week, Singapore culture minister Yaacob Ibrahim responded to a series of parliamentary questions about the timing, impact and possible extension of the rules , maintaining that Singapore’s regulation of the Internet has not changed. He portrayed the rules as a transition from licensing by overall class to licensing by individual, and as putting online services on the same footing as traditional media.

The new rules apply to any website that reports an average of at least one article per week on Singaporean news and current affairs over a period of two months, and is visited by a monthly average of 50,000 unique IP addresses from inside Singapore.

Sites subject to the individual licenses are required to put up a “performance bond” of $40,000, and may be required to take down within 24 hours any prohibited content.

That means material “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.” Gay-rights groups feel at risk, since content that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism” is specifically banned under Singapore media laws.

Former member of parliament Siew Kum Hong questions why the government feels the need to introduce censorship in the name of media parity. “If there should be regulatory parity (between newspapers and online media), why should we achieve that by reducing the freedom on the Internet? Why can’t we liberalize the mainstream media?” he asks.

The Media Development Authority’s initial regulatory sweep named only 10 news sites — seven run by government-friendly Singapore Press Holdings and two by public broadcaster MediaCorp — as well as Yahoo, which operates an editorial hub in Singapore.

Nevertheless, the move provoked a letter of protest from the Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby group formed by eBay, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Yahoo, which said: “The additional licensing conditions are onerous, regressive and untenable in practice.” The U.S. State Dept. weighed in last week at a briefing, in which a spokeswoman said the government is deeply concerned.

Whether other sites, and especially those operating from outside Singapore, will be required to get the new licenses remains murky. However, it seems clear that the new rules can do little good to the city-state’s democratic credentials.

While Singapore is consistently rated as one of the world’s top territories in which to do business, it is also the lowest-ranked developed country on Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index. In 2013, Singapore lies 149th, just behind Russia and one place ahead of Iraq. On current trends, it may slip below fast-liberalizing Myanmar, in 151st place.

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