October 1, 2012
By Liau Yun Qing
SINGAPORE and Malaysia will unlikely implement social media regulations amid the rise in social network postings stoking religious and racial tension.
"To introduce such a change would be a huge leap to take and means adopting a stance notably different to that taken in most other jurisdictions," said Elle Todd, partner at law firm Olswang Asia.
She gave the example of Singapore which tends to use take down procedure for defamatory and copyright content.
Todd was commenting on the call in August by Australian politicians for legislative powers to force social networks to swiftly remove offensive content. This was sparked by Facebook's failure to immediately remove a page which contained racist stereotypes of Australian aboriginals, although it eventually did.
Tighter rules across region
Other countries in Asia-Pacific have made similar moves to tighten social media regulation.
India called for Facebook and Twitter to censor content. Late last month, the country said it would block Twitter if the U.S. company did not remove hate pages on the site. However, the government did not carry out the threat.
In China where foreign social networks are blocked, local social networks abide by regulation and block content deemed unsavory by the government content, such as political content.
Todd added that social networks which complied with such government requests would need to monitor huge volumes of traffic, understand a myriad of often ambiguous legal requirements and face potential liability for "missing" anything.
Thus, such requests may become such a burden which social networks are unwilling to accept which may bring them to relook at continuing activities in the region, she added.
Censoring posts will also be unpopular with many users as it imposes limits on freedom of speech as social networks would need to "err on the side of caution" and block any potentially problematic content, she added.
While Singapore and Malaysia are unlikely to implement strict social media regulations, both countries have cases of social media-related arrests. A man was arrested in Singapore in 2010 while another in Malaysia just last week.
Benefits of identification policy small
In China, part of the government's way of regulating social networks is to implement a real-name policy which requires users to register their real names to use their microblogging accounts. South Korea used to have a similar regulation but it revoked its online real name law recently after finding it ineffective.
According to Todd, it would be possible for Singapore and Malaysia to have a real name policy by using the national identity card numbering system for verification.
However, the benefits of having such a rule is "often limited and again would represent a major shift likely to be seen by many as disproportionate to the problems caused", she said.
"In fact, some would argue that it would also have a negative impact in terms of unduly prejudicing the rights of individuals including their freedom of expression, creativity and privacy," Todd added.
With a real name policy, one of the key attractions of social networks which is to create and manage one's own persona could be lost and may make for far less and less interesting activity, said Todd.
Governments will need to think if it could also create more problems in terms of safety for users if there is no room for anonymity, she said.
"There is also a risk that individuals could be imputed with liability for offensive content in instances where accounts have been fraudulently registered with their details, where their accounts have been hacked and even where others access the individuals' pre-logged in social media networks on their Internet-connected devices," she said.
Users do not welcome social media regulation
Debbie Yong, a Malaysian hospital administrator based in Singapore, said she would be "really angry" if the two governments implement social media regulation. "Monitoring and censoring content makes me angry because of my rights to freedom of expression," said Yong.
"I would feel that I was living in a surveillance state. As if we have not given up lots of rights already, what with forbidden topics like religion, politics," she said.
Malaysian Lo Shiang Len, currently unemployed, agreed, adding that the governments might censor content that do not benefit them. She noted that having a real-name policy might cause identity theft if the registration process is not secure.
However, Lo said there are cases when social media regulations would work. She said that social networks should delete cyberbullying-related content.
Yong added that there is no need for the governments to step up monitoring as "they do not seem to have difficulty in tracking down political dissenters".
About Liau Yun Qing
The only journalist in the team without a Western name, Yun Qing hails from the mountainy Malaysian state, Sabah. She currently covers the hardware and networking beats, as well as everything else that falls into her lap, at ZDNet Asia. Her RSS feed includes tech news sites and most of the Cheezburger network. She is also a cheapskate masquerading as a group-buying addict.