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US ‘deeply concerned’ by new MDA licensing rules

SINGAPORE — About three weeks after a group of global technology giants criticised the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) new licensing scheme for online news sites, the United States government has also weighed in on the issue, with the State Department saying that it was “deeply concerned” by the “restrictive” policy.

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SINGAPORE — About three weeks after a group of global technology giants criticised the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) new licensing scheme for online news sites, the United States government has also weighed in on the issue, with the State Department saying that it was “deeply concerned” by the “restrictive” policy.

Responding to a question on Singapore’s new rules during a daily media briefing on Monday — during which a wide variety of questions concerning various issues and countries were raised — State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said: “We are deeply concerned by the new restrictive Singaporean policy requiring the licensing of news websites. We raise Internet freedom regularly in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with foreign governments, including Singapore.”

She added: “We urge Singapore to ensure freedom of expression is protected in accordance with its international obligations and commitments. We closely monitor and often speak out, as you all know, on both Internet freedom and media freedom throughout the world. This case is no different and we are concerned, of course, to see Singapore applying press restrictions to the online world.”

According to a transcript published on the State Department website, Ms Psaki was asked to comment on a letter sent by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — comprising Internet giants Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo! and Salesforce — to the Singapore Government and, in particular, the clause which empowers the Singapore authorities to ask a licensed news website to take down an article within 24 hours.

Following the controversy which erupted after former US National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden blew the whistle on mass surveillance programmes, Ms Psaki was also asked to give assurance that the US was not pushing for Internet freedom around the world to “make it easier for (the US) government to listen in and bug people”. To which she replied: “I want to make sure that the AP and Reuters stories are available to all the people of Singapore.”

When contacted for a response to Ms Psaki’s comments, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) referred this newspaper to what its minister, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, had said in Parliament on Monday, in response to concerns on the new rules raised by Members of Parliament.

Among other things, Dr Yaacob had reiterated that the individual licensing of online news sites is meant to ensure responsibility among news providers and bring greater regulatory parity across various media platforms, given the trends of media convergence and more people getting their news online. He also repeatedly assured that the new rules will not stifle creativity or freedom of speech on the Internet, or create uncertainty for businesses operating in Singapore.

On June 14, the AIC sent a letter to Dr Yaacob, saying the licensing regime would have a “significant chilling effect” on innovation by introducing “ambiguous and onerous” conditions.

The MCI replied to the coalition last week while the MDA had also met AIC representatives early last month. Dr Yaacob also addressed the AIC’s concerns in Parliament: “The content standards are not more stringent than what all Internet Content Providers have to abide by under the Class Licence and Internet Code of Practice ... the standards have not changed since 1996. The industry has developed, the framework is in place, and the standards remain the same. How will the industry be affected?”

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