Shades of grey in rules for online video stores

Call it the Singapore movie-watcher's case of Fifty Shades Of Grey - both the film, and what has emerged as a grey area to do with purchasing R21-rated movies.

On the one hand, brick-and-mortar video retailers in Singapore are not allowed to sell R21 movies, and they must carry the appropriate film-classification ratings for all titles.

On the other hand, two international content distribution companies with online stores have offered R21-rated titles for sale despite Media Development Authority (MDA) rules banning those targeting a Singapore audience from doing so.

American search giant Google sold R21 titles banned from home distribution in Singapore - including controversial bondage film Fifty Shades Of Grey - on its Singapore online Play store when it launched its movie service just over a month ago.

After The Straits Times reported this, Google withdrew the titles. A spokesman for the MDA, when asked if it would take action against Google, was reported as saying only: "MDA will work with Google to align their ratings with our film-classification guidelines."

The latest incident with Google puts the spotlight on Singapore's decades-old media regulatory framework. The problem arises from the fact that the existing laws are outdated... Now, there are Singapore Web stores from the likes of Apple iTunes and Google Play. Do they need to apply for a licence to operate, and follow local censorship rules, as one would expect they should? The answer is that under the law as it is currently worded, it is unclear. Irene Tham

The other instance involving R21 movies and international distributors was three years ago - Apple was spotted by local media selling such movies when it launched its iTunes store in Singapore. Apple withdrew the movies after MDA contacted it.

The latest incident with Google puts the spotlight on Singapore's decades-old media regulatory framework.

The problem arises from the fact that the existing laws are outdated. They essentially say that all content shown or sold by brick-and-mortar film distributors, and free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters, is subject to censorship guidelines as part of their licensing conditions.

But now, there are Singapore Web stores from the likes of Apple iTunes and Google Play. Do they need to apply for a licence to operate, and follow local censorship rules, as one would expect they should?

The answer is that under the law as it is currently worded, it is unclear. True, Singaporeans already can watch videos streamed from overseas, using virtual private networks (VPNs) on their computers, tablets or mobile phones.

These are available via video streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which restrict access to only United States viewers. VPN services mask users' real locations, thus saving movie fans in Singapore the hassle of changing their computer, router and modem settings to access uncensored content from overseas.


Last week, Internet service provider (ISP) ViewQwest said more than half of its broadband network's traffic is from users accessing Netflix content.

But one thing that is clear so far is that Singapore's censorship rules do not apply to overseas companies that do not target Singapore viewers.


Meanwhile, in the absence of clarity under the current laws, Apple and Google seem to have got away with their Singapore online stores selling R21 titles. After all, they have not been punished, whereas a home video distributor caught doing so would likely have been.

Brick-and-mortar video distributors and pay-TV operators must apply for a licence to operate in Singapore.

The Broadcasting Act and Film Act require films to be classified for various age groups such as 21 years, depending on the maturity of the themes. Some films may also need to be censored if they depict sexual violence, for instance.

On the distribution front, home video distributors are not allowed to sell R21 titles containing nudity and violence as they are meant only for those aged 21 and above.

R21 titles can be shown only in theatres, and viewed on video-on-demand platforms that come with parental locks.

Flouting the rules attracts sanctions, including fines, and the possibility of having their licence revoked - a penalty that is clearly not applicable to online video players.

No wonder, then, that traditional brick-and-mortar video distributors and pay-TV operators are concerned that the lack of clarity in rules governing online players gives the latter an unfair advantage.

Indeed, after the latest incident, Singtel told The Straits Times: "We welcome the introduction of clearer regulations which provide for a more level playing field between licensed pay-TV operators in Singapore and foreign content providers or distributors."

The Government recognises the need for regulatory changes. It set up a panel to review the current laws in November 2012, but there has been no update on any decision on the recommendations.

The 12-member Media Convergence Review Panel, chaired by well-known Singaporean businessman Koh Boon Hwee, recommended that online video businesses that target Singapore consumers must get a licence.

Without applying regulations consistently, the disparity between local media firms and their foreign counterparts "will be further accentuated over time", said the panel's 64-page report.

In May last year, the Ministry of Communications and Information reiterated in Parliament plans to amend the Broadcasting Act, but provided no details. It wanted to ensure that media regulations "protect and uphold the public interest and the national interest". Content offered to local consumers, for instance, must not damage national harmony or offend good taste. But clearly, greater urgency is needed. The pace of change in the media space can only get faster.


There are three possible ways to level the playing field:

1. Make everyone, including foreign video players that target Singapore consumers, apply for a licence to operate in Singapore, as recommended by the Media Convergence Review Panel.

But service providers like Netflix, rumoured to be considering setting up operations in Singapore, may not want the hassle of licensing and censorship, and may choose to skip the small local market.

The delayed Singapore launch of cable TV broadcaster HBO Asia's HBO Go online streaming service provides a useful lesson. Originally planned for a 2013 launch, HBO Go made its local debut only last month as part of StarHub's new online streaming service.

It is believed that the delay was over censorship. HBO Go was streaming to mobile devices popular mediaeval fantasy series Game Of Thrones and historical drama Rome, which contain scenes of graphic sex and violence that would be rated R21 in Singapore. It censored these to qualify for an M18 rating, which is allowed to be streamed here.

However, under this approach, Singapore may not attract as many foreign players to set up here and fulfil its ambition of being a content hosting and funding hub.

2. This is probably too bold a suggestion, but here goes: Lift the broad censorship gate at the content distribution level, and move it further downstream to homes. In other words, the responsibility for censorship will fall solely on parents.

The authorities can help by requiring ISPs and broadcasters to supply filters or parental locks for all platforms: pay-TV, computers and mobile devices.

Similarly, lift the ban on home video stores selling R21 films. The authorities can mandate age verification over the counter - just as how age checks are required for the sale of alcohol and cigarettes.

Of course, parent groups would strongly resist this. Lifting the gates also means that the authorities lose control over content that incites hatred, putting national harmony at risk.

3. Keep existing rules intact, and compel online video businesses that target Singapore consumers to partner local broadcasters that already have a licence.

The HBO Asia-StarHub partnership for HBO Go is a good example.

In such a way, the authorities can still retain a certain level of control over online content targeting local consumers.

Lawyer Rajesh Sreenivasan, technology and telecoms partner at Rajah & Tann, said: "This collaborative approach allows the social issues to be addressed without bringing out the sledgehammer, which would be the case if the only way online streaming services can operate is to apply for a licence to operate here."

Whichever approach the regulator takes, the focus must be on fairness. Overseas online video players targeting local consumers must follow the laws of the land they operate in. But these rules have to be spelt out clearly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Shades of grey in rules for online video stores'. Print Edition | Subscribe