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OpenNet Initiative Finds that Singapore’s State Control Over Online Content Blends Legal and Technical Controls

Cambridge, MA - The university-based OpenNet Initiative (ONI) today released “Internet Filtering in Singapore in 2004-2005,” a report that documents the degree and extent to which the Republic of Singapore controls the information environment in which its citizens live, including websites, blogs, email, and online discussion forums.

Drawing from technical, legal, and political sources, ONI’s research finds that Singapore’s state-mandated Internet filtering system targets only minimal content. ONI found that only eight of 1,632 tested sites were blocked at any point during testing. Sites blocked by the Republic of Singapore include a few pornographic URLs, an illegal drug site, and a fanatical religious site. Compared to other countries with mandatory filtering regimes that ONI has closely studied, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, Singapore’s technical filtering system is among the most limited.

While Singapore has the technical infrastructure to implement filtering on a broader scale, it appears to favor a more traditional rule-and-sanction legal regime to control online materials. The Republic of Singapore imposes stringent legal pressures, such as defamation lawsuits and the threat of imprisonment, to prevent people from posting objectionable content, such as pornography and political criticism. Singapore’s strict defamation laws place the burden of proving the truth and accuracy of each statement upon the defendant in a lawsuit; the U.S. State Department notes that suits have been consistently decided in favor of government officials over political critics, raising serious questions about the independence of Singapore’s judiciary. Its Internet content regulation also employs controls designed to minimize anonymous speech, such as requiring political sites to register for a license. The legal regime primarily targets the creation of online materials; laws against consumption of such content are generally not enforced.

For example, Jiahoa Chen, a Singapore citizen studying at the University of Illinois, recently faced the threat of a defamation suit from a state official when Chen blogged his criticism of A*STAR, a Singaporean state agency. Facing potentially ruinous financial penalties, Chen closed his blog. Chen’s case reinforces the power of law to alter Internet content and has led other Singaporean bloggers to write more cautiously. Singapore’s Internet filtering system demonstrates that legal controls can be as potent – and more far-reaching – than technical measures in controlling online communication; legal actions are directed at Singapore’s citizens worldwide, irrespective of their physical location.

While free speech in Singapore is less constrained than in China and Saudi Arabia, where ONI has found significant filtering, when compared to other governments with widely diffused technology, the Republic of Singapore imposes far more stringent constraints on its citizens’ expression.


Statements from ONI’s Report Authors:

Singapore's Internet filtering system demonstrates how technical filters and stringent legal controls reinforce each other, allowing this state to limit how its citizens communicate online and what they can say. While Singapore's filtering targets only a few sites today, the technical infrastructure to block more content is in place. Moreover, the use of techniques such as defamation lawsuits to curtail criticism of the state's policies and officials is troubling, and shows that the Internet, far from being a zone beyond legal control, is susceptible to the same pressures as more traditional forms of communication. - Derek Bambauer, Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Singapore's Internet filtering regime presents a mixed picture. While the relatively minimal controls placed over Internet content by authorities are intriguing, they need to be placed against the backdrop of a strict regime of media regulation that creates an environment inimical to freedom of speech overall. Moreover, without firm regulations to the contrary, Internet filtering could be reintroduced at a moment's notice given the state's firm grip over telecommunications. - Ronald Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto.

If you look at it alongside places like China and Iran, Singapore’s technical Internet censorship regime is mild by comparison. The controls on content in Singapore are exercised much more through the law and through social norms than they are through technology. And it’s important to note that Singapore’s Internet censorship takes place in a state with a famously open and progressive economy – which creates a tenuous situation as the importance of the Net continues to grow. - John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Rather than rely heavily on centralized Internet filtering, Singapore has opted to encourage users to voluntarily adopt the use of filtered, "family access" services. The technical filtering that does take place appears to be symbolic. - Nart Villeneuve, Director of Technical Research, Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

As tools for citizen expression go mainstream – blogging, podcasting, photo sharing – countries with refined legal regimes to constrain and police content boundaries may find themselves in a better position to filter content than regimes that rely instead on technical filtering. The Internet is becoming more technically multi-faceted, and its content-providers more broad based. These expansions challenge governments to either be more permissive about what citizens can see and write, or to ramp up a spectrum of controls that previously could be effected through simple blocks of the sort that a parent might use to limit a child’s Web surfing activities.

- Jonathan Zittrain, Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

ONI is a collaborative partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, and the University of Cambridge. Authors of ONI’s report: Ronald Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Rafal Rohozinski, Director of the Advanced Network Security Group,University of Cambridge; Jonathan Zittrain, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center; John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Nart Villeneuve, Director of Technical Research at the Citizen Lab; and Derek Bambauer, Berkman Center Fellow. The work of principal investigators Jonathan L. Zittrain and John G. Palfrey, Jr. on this research report was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Research and Writing Grants Program of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability. For more information about the OpenNet Initiative, please visit ONI’s website:

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