Thursday, 30 May 2013

MDA rolls out licence scheme for news websites

Govt: Move to ensure consistency of treatment with traditional platforms
By Leonard Lim And Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 29 May 2013

NEWS websites that provide regular reports on Singapore and have significant reach will need individual licences from Saturday, in a bid to align the regulatory frameworks of online and traditional news platforms.

The need to ensure consistency of treatment, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday, is driven by the fact that more Singaporeans now receive news online.

But the news was swiftly interpreted by many in the online fraternity as a move to rein them in.

Now, all locally based sites, except personal ones like blogs, are automatically included in a class licence scheme and are expected to observe Singapore's Internet guidelines. But with the change, to be gazetted today, news sites must be individually licensed once they meet two criteria.

These are: if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months, and reach at least 50,000 unique Internet Protocol addresses from here each month over a period of two months.

Licences must be renewed yearly, similar to permits for newspapers under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.

The sites must also put up a performance bond of $50,000, similar to that required for niche TV broadcasters.

Dr Yaacob, speaking to reporters after visiting Tamil Murasu, said: "Given the evolving landscape, it's important to give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.

"But we recognise that we don't want to put too high a burden on news sites and therefore if you look carefully at the content criteria, performance standards, it's no different from what they are subject to under the Broadcasting Act, except now they have to be licensed on an annual basis."

The new licence requires holders to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified.

This could be something that goes against good taste, for example, gory pictures of a recent Tampines traffic accident in which two young boys died.

It could also be material that may offend religious sensitivities, as when the Media Development Authority (MDA) got Google last year to restrict access to the "Innocence of Muslims" video here.

It could also be material relating to vice, such as prostitution.

The Broadcasting Act will also be amended next year to give the Government powers to apply the framework on overseas-based news sites targeting the Singapore market, Dr Yaacob said.

Based on surveys and traffic monitoring studies MDA has used, 10 sites will need the new licence. They include seven Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) sites, such as and Stomp, and two by MediaCorp.

Yahoo Singapore is the only one not run by either SPH or MediaCorp. The Straits Times understands that Yahoo Singapore intends to comply, though its "country ambassador" Alan Soon declined comment until it receives the actual licence conditions.

MDA did not rule out including other prominent socio-political sites if they meet the criteria.

The media regulator stressed that as websites are already subject to the Internet Code of Practice which prohibits content that, for instance, undermines racial harmony, "no change in content standards is expected".

But media watchers like the Institute of Policy Studies' Dr Carol Soon said the ruling will "inevitably have a chilling effect". "This is due to uncertainty over whether the regulation will stay as it is, or be expanded," she said.

An SPH spokesman said the company is waiting for the gazette notification before knowing what the next steps are.

Clampdown? Yes: Netizens No: MDA
MDA defends new rules to license news sites while netizens cry foul
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 30 May 2013

TO A chorus of criticism, the Media Development Authority (MDA) yesterday said categorically that it was not trying to clamp down on Internet freedom with its new online licensing scheme.

Contrary to netizens' claims that the ruling raises more questions than answers, the media regulator said the changes were meant to provide greater clarity on prevailing content standards in the Internet Code of Practice current rules that all news sites already have to abide by.

It stressed that there was no change to these standards.

"It is not MDA's policy intent to place onerous obligations on the licensees," it said yesterday, noting that the performance bond of $50,000 required of licensed news sites is pegged to the amount required of niche broadcasters.

It also noted that websites would have a month to seek clarifications once they receive a notice and the MDA would "welcome them to discuss their concerns with us".

Its statement, in response to media queries, came as changes to the regulations giving effect to new licensing rules were gazetted yesterday.

In a notice posted on the Government Gazette yesterday, the MDA said news sites that fit certain criteria will now be excluded from the automatic class licence scheme, which most websites currently fall into.

On Tuesday, it announced that news websites would need to apply for an individual licence if they met two criteria: They have more than one news story on Singapore per week, and attract more than 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore per month, over a period of two months.

Many netizens had reacted angrily online, saying that the definitions were too broad and a form of censorship.

They asked for more clarity on how websites would be chosen and what the legislation was meant to achieve. The National Solidarity Party and the Singapore Democratic Party also decried the ruling as "regressive" and impeding local media.

Yesterday, Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications and Information, said the MDA should provide many more examples of what it considers prohibited material, to "make clear the point that it is only going after content that is not in good taste or racially and religiously offensive".

Others like former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong noted that the list of 10 sites MDA had asked to apply for a licence were all commercially owned entities, and suggested the MDA "clearly affirm" that the regulations were meant only for commercial sites.

"That will go a long way towards addressing the perception that this measure is solely intended to bring the Internet to heel," he said.

Socio-political website The Online Citizen also continued its disagreement with MDA over whether or not it crossed the threshold for licensing.

TOC maintains that it does, even though it was not asked to apply for a licence. Yesterday, it posted statistics showing it had 171,601 unique visitors from April 26 to May 26. It did not state where the visitors came from.

MDA yesterday repeated its earlier statement that the site did not qualify although it did not elaborate.

It also did not answer queries on whether it would ban or block a website that flouts its licence. It said, however, that the offending website's owner could be fined up to $200,000 and/or imprisoned up to three years.

It did, however, elaborate on how it decided on the visitor threshold.

It said: "MDA has typically used reach as a criterion for various licences. In this case, our assessment is that a site accessed from more than 50,000 monthly unique IP addresses in Singapore has sufficiently high reach to warrant an individual licence.

"We use a range of data sources including traffic monitoring and consumer surveys to determine the reach of a website."

Licence scheme: MDA starts with 10 sites
If more need to apply for a licence, they will have one month to comply
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 29 May 2013

THE Media Development Authority (MDA) will monitor websites before deciding if any others need to be added to the original 10 that will now be required to apply for an individual licence to operate.

And when it does require a website to apply for a licence, it will give owners of the site one month to comply.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim elaborated on the new licensing rules while speaking to reporters yesterday: "We will continue to monitor the sites like we do now as part of our job and we will monitor their reach and content. (If) they cross the two thresholds, we'll call them up and tell them they have to be licensed."

Questions later started to swirl online over which websites might soon have to apply for a licence.

In announcing the new ruling yesterday, MDA said that the rules would apply to news sites that fulfil two criteria: They must post at least one news article on Singapore a week and attract at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month, over a period of two months.

Socio-political site, The Online Citizen (TOC), put up a statement last night asking if the rules would be applied to non-profit sites, as it reported that its site traffic had crossed the threshold.

Responding to media queries, MDA said: "TOC does not fall within the online licensing framework. If it did, it would be among the sites listed in MDA's statement. Should MDA determine later that it ought to be individually licensed, it will be notified."

It did not say why the website did not meet the two criteria, but TOC is known to update its website regularly.

The announcement yesterday triggered discussions online, with some wondering how MDA might track website traffic and others asking how MDA would enforce the rules on websites that are based overseas.

Dr Yaacob said that this was a matter the Government would study carefully as it intends to amend the Broadcasting Act next year to cover overseas sites.

"They are reporting on Singapore, and I think if you report on Singapore we want to make sure you report fairly and accurately and, so far, there have been no problems," he said.

MDA did not say how it would track the traffic to the sites but Web experts said it was possible to obtain such data on a commercial basis and through freely available information from companies that track Web traffic.

Many netizens last night criticised the move as an attempt to censor the Web.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, however, suspects the authorities are ultimately trying to target and shape tone, rather than content.

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