No being 'Net neutral' about content

Internet regulation has to evolve not just in tandem with technology but also in response to people's use - or abuse - of the medium. It is a tricky exercise for all governments from both political and practical angles. For Singapore, the job is complicated by the needs of a multicultural society - for example, striking a balance between the conservative convictions of heartlanders and liberal impulses of netizens and others. This issue has resurfaced over the shutting down of The Real Singapore website by the Media Development Authority - a move that has predictably drawn criticism.

Civil society organisations tend to see regulatory interventions as "censorship", but even countries with a venerable tradition of freedom of speech accept that the authorities cannot simply be "Net neutral" about content. France, for example, is planning to strengthen laws against anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic acts.

Some might question the effectiveness of Net regulation as it's not possible to ensure offensive content is fully blocked, given the ease with which a person can mirror a banned site. Still, only the reckless would abandon all legislation to regulate this borderless world. Indeed, there is strong motivation in many places to issue a reminder to those operating in cyberspace that they still dwell in the real world and physically within the borders of nation states and are therefore subject to the laws of the land. With technology allowing Web traffic to be tracked from specific locations, big sites are vulnerable to court orders to adopt geographical filtering and to enforce specific national laws, as happened in the recent Yahoo-Nazi memorabilia case.

States might opt for a laissez-faire environment, a so-called light regulatory touch, or for a "great wall of censorship". Singapore's approach is a calibrated one based on existing laws that require action to be taken against, say, spreading pornography or threatening racial harmony and public order.

Singaporeans, who generally expect no undue restriction on the flow of information and opinion, would accept that some restraints are necessary to safeguard the larger good. They would also expect a measured enforcement of laws as one must weigh the potential or real harm caused by objectionable content against the downside of taking firm action. When individuals or groups use their sites to spread views which are deliberately provocative and controversial - to draw eyeballs and with that advertising revenue, heedless of the damage done - the State cannot sit on its hands but must act to safeguard society. Every community has to choose its own regulatory paradigm, knowing that none is perfect. For Singapore, an active but "light touch" approach is appropriate given both its global city status and multicultural character.