Online social norms need time to evolve

Online social norms need time to evolve

Netizens can and will self-moderate; Govt can help, but less intrusively

EVEN before its engine could get started, the attempt by the Government to encourage a community-created Internet code of conduct appears to be stalling.

Since last November, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim has been encouraging the online community to spell out its terms of engagement. The idea is to evolve a code that the Internet users would themselves want to subscribe to and enforce on others, although without any penalties for infringement.

It is easy to see why the Government made the call. Over the last few months, the ugly face of cyberspace seems to have been in the spotlight with instances of online witch-hunts and rumour-mongering. Some netizens incensed others so much with postings that were racist or religiously offensive that police reports were lodged. A code of conduct would lay down that vulgarities, racism and outright lies are as unacceptable online as in the real world.

But nearly six months after Dr Yaacob’s call, no consensus has emerged. Some have shrugged, saying that the freedom and anonymity that the Internet affords means that you just cannot stop everyone from saying offensive things.

After a bout of closed-door discussion with Government representatives last month, several prominent bloggers and website owners said upfront that they were against a code and called for the Government to ‘leave the Internet alone’. Some of them are doubtful a code could be workable at all. Others are shying away because they suspect the move is no more than a ploy for the Government to control speech online.

This is ironic because both sides are essentially chasing the same goal – self-regulation. But a major point of contention is whether the Government can or should play midwife in the birth of a code.

The Government says it wants to see a ground-up initiative but also hopes to shape it. It views itself as a neutral coordinator and facilitator in the process. As Dr Yaacob put it, the formation of the code would be ‘supervised and guided’ by ministry officials and Mica has called for interested parties to submit proposals.

From the Internet community’s point of view, this can be a minefield. The idea of self-regulation is that the state should not get involved at all. Because of a trust gap, some have baulked at what appears to be an unfortunate mention of ‘supervision’, believing it to be a codeword for the Government dictating the rules. This has partially obscured the debate and the aim of the Government to coordinate various inputs into a cohesive document.

Indeed, there are obvious difficulties in getting a loose band of individuals to sit down and collectively agree to follow a single code of conduct. The nature of the Internet is that it is fragmented, catering to all kinds of niche viewpoints and causes. Unlike industry groups where codes of conduct are common, netizens do not have a clearly defined set of goals.

This was a problem that Web expert Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales ran up against in 2007, when they created a code for bloggers. The points included disallowing anonymous comments, and not saying anything online that you would not in person. To no one’s great surprise, the initiative flopped. Having one set of rules was too monolithic, for the wide range of interests and needs.

Divergence in views is a given and need not prevent the evolution of a code. One way is wooing the Internet service providers and Web companies to come up with their own code of conduct so they do their bit to promote civility online.

In Malaysia, for instance, a coalition of industry groups including Internet service providers, advertisers, broadcasters and civic institutions drew up a code in 2004 that included a pledge not to host indecent or menacing content.

A code that was initiated by the Canadian Association of Internet Service Providers in 1996 pledges that members will investigate and take action against cases where users post illegal content.

In Singapore, a voluntary code of conduct exists among the major telecommunications providers to protect minors from accessing undesirable online content on mobile handsets. This could serve as the building block for a broader code.

But if it is to have any traction, netizens need to step up to the plate too. For instance, well-known bloggers could voice their disapproval of wrong behaviour more often. Ordinary users too should speak up more and louder.

This is already happening. When The Straits Times reported recently that a Filipino boy was wrongly targeted in an online witch-hunt, several netizens condemned the act in comments on the websites which had led the campaign. Two weeks ago, former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong decried Internet vigilantism in a post, while last month satirist Mr Brown appealed to netizens to stop spreading kidnap rumours.

Websites like The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus have moderation policies warning users that they would delete comments that are defamatory, or racially or religiously offensive.

All these are signs that the community can and will self-moderate, only to a looser extent than the Government envisions.

As netizens negotiate this process of self-regulation, the Government can indeed help. It cannot be the arbiter of cyberspace, but can wield its influence in a less intrusive way, for example by publicly encouraging the community whenever it pushes back against bad behaviour.

Giving netizens latitude and time to do it on their own is important as online discourse is still evolving and finding its equilibrium. One example is the number of blogs and netizens that have popped up in recent years to express moderate views or support for the Government. The variety of voices has helped even the anti-Government tilt in online discourse.

The Government has called for online social rules that mirror those in the real world. But let’s not forget that norms, whether online or offline, need time to evolve.

By Tessa Wong
twong@sph.com.sg
Source: The Straits Times

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