One gay website banned, another fined
On 28 Oct 2005, the Straits Times had a story about the government banning
a gay website and imposing a fine on another. See box on the right.
Although the article did not identify the sites, it was virtually unanimous among those observing the gay web scene in Singapore that the banned site was www.fluffboy.com (now offline). According to sources that claimed to be knowledgeable, the one that was fined $5,000 was www.fridae.com. Yawning Bread is not too sure; it could have been sgboy.com
What I'd like to evaluate here is whether the government's action was justified and even if justified, whether it could have been executed better. Then I'd like to discuss what such an episode reveals about Singapore's political governance and our image abroad.
But first a little background would help.
Fluffboy was believed to be an offshoot of another Singapore-based gay website, www.sgboy.com [See addendum 1], which is a typical gay webzine with the occasional news article (not particularly profound), classified advertisements, personals, some pointers to the social scene, and a very active online forum. It used to have ads for explicit pictures which the user could buy online, but they're gone now. However, it still has banner advertisements for male escort services, massage parlours, parties, etc.
Up till about mid 2004, the sgboy's online forum was a rather uninhibited space, where users would write first-hand accounts of their sexual trysts, and provide detailed write-ups about "extra services" rendered by so-called masseurs. This was in addition to discussions about clubbing, fashion and current affairs, none of which would have been objectionable.
After the Media Development Authority (MDA) began to take an interest in sgboy last year, the webmaster began to get stricter and stricter. Discussions about sex were moderated out, whole threads cut off and the pay-to-view feature for explicit pictures quietly canned.
Around the same time, a new site www.fluffboy.com started; everybody kind of knew that it was an extension of sgboy.com.
This can be seen from a posting (dated 30 October 2005) by "Clean" on sgboy.com's online forum one year later:
(Does his term "strong arm" mean "hardcore"?)
Indeed, the page design and the organisation of fluffboy's and sgboy's online forums were very similar. However, the owner of sgboy in an email to me denied that they operated fluffboy.
The racier discussions that had been disallowed in sgboy resurfaced in fluffboy while a new attraction was added -- a section where users could share pictures. No prizes for guessing what kinds of pictures.
Yet if amateur self-pix left you cold, there were plenty of better-quality ones of good-looking models available for purchase. Someone told me that at one point, it was also possible to purchase streaming video from the fluffboy site. Others do not recall this. Regardless, fluffboy was a no-holds-barred kind of site that was very image-friendly.
Interestingly, another friend's top-of-mind recall about fluffboy was how one forummer there wrote pretty engrossing erotic fiction. One redeeming feature at least, of fluffboy was that it showcased some real writing talent, my friend said.
He vividly recalled a story with a military setting -- the Singapore Armed Forces featured in it -- involving sex slavery on a remote island, bondage and some extremely violent plot twists. Unfortunately, the graphic nature of the fiction was very controversial even among the online forummers of fluffboy, and someone said the site should be reported to the authorities. Whether he did or not, no one really knows.
Others claimed commercial rivalry led to the complaints. And never forget we have Christian fundamentalists who feel it's their religious calling to trawl the internet for things to complain to the authorities about.
So that's the background. Now let's look at the news report.
If you read the Straits Times' report carefully, you'd notice that action against the banned (foreign-based) website was taken in July, while the fine on the local website (believed to be fridae.com) was imposed in September. Yet, the news report was dated 28 October. With such a time lag, it does not look as if the MDA was the party revealing their actions.
Nor was there any press statement on the MDA's website about either of their decisions, which supports my belief that they did not intend to publicise their actions.
The other interesting thing was that Straits Times identified one of the complainants -- Ricky Lee. It would be very unusual for the MDA to reveal who complained to them, and anyway the MDA spoke of "several" complaints, though that could mean multiple complaints from one person rather than multiple complainants.
Ricky Lee also provided the Straits Times with many quotes. Put 2 and 2 together and it looks like Ricky Lee was the one who contacted the Straits Times. Now, why did he do that? What's his motive?
The Straits Times' story was rather slapdash
If you go through Straits Times' report with a fine-tooth comb, you'd notice that while the newspaper quoted Ricky Lee directly in a number of places, it hardly did so in the case of the MDA. For example, just look at this paragraph:
Question: who said that the website "promoted promiscuous homosexual behaviour and recruited underage boys for sex and nude photography"? At first glance, they seem like words from the MDA, but were they? Were these the government's grounds for taking action? Or were they Ricky Lee's personal opinion? If in the latter case, did the newspaper verify those claims before putting it in their report?
Another reason to be cautious comes from another sentence:
The MDA seemed to have told the reporter that the sites violated Part 4 (thus the newspaper used quotation marks), but the way the rest of the sentence was phrased suggested that they were not words from the MDA, but the reporter's reading and selective citation from Part 4.
If you look carefully at the Internet Code of Practice, Part 4 contains many subparts, yet the Straits Times specifically mentioned only nudity, homosexuality and paedophilia. Hence, the question is, did the MDA specifically confirm to the reporter that fridae and fluffboy infringed these particular rules, or was he relying on Ricky Lee's opinion? Or did the reporter throw in the mention of paedophilia  of his own accord?
The last possibility comes to mind because many people instinctively lump homosexuality with paedophilia.
The Straits Times' story is a pretty poor example of journalistic standards. It makes a number of authoritative-sounding statements without adequate citation. This has consequences, which I will touch on in the last section, Credibility.
I'm not saying the Straits Times made
it up, but if you look at the Reuters story, it's a bit clearer what the
MDA was prepared to say, though the source for some bits of information,
such as the membership numbers and the statement "the local site had
nude pictures and videos of gay men having sex..." remains unclear.
Regardless of the quality of the newspaper report, we should still establish how true these allegations were, particularly that about underaged kids. My research indicates that fluffboy did have such content, finding as I did these postings on sgboy's online forum:
Fluffboy was banned because the MDA could not trace its owners and operators, and so could not impose penalties on them. While everyone believes that fluffboy was related to sgboy, and surely MDA believes that too, proving it is another thing.
The other site, believed to be fridae (or sgboy), was fined because its ownership was verifiable and its management locally-based. Unlike fluffboy, fridae and sgboy had been set up years earlier and did not as effectively conceal its/their ownership. Fluffboy on the other hand was set up clearly to escape the MDA's reach. How would MDA fine an anonymous, foreign-based site owner? It could only instruct internet service providers locally to bar all connections to its URL, which is what we mean by "ban".
Why is it important to know this? Because this means the MDA's punitive action was not related to the degree or nature of the transgression, but to the degree by which they could establish ownership and operational control. Yet, sammyboy.com poses a glaring inconsistency.
Sammyboy is almost an institution in Singapore's webscape. It's been running for years, well known for its explicit pictures of women. It can't even plead artistic merit. The women simply dump their bulbous boobs onto your screen or squash it with close-ups of their vulvas. Other pictures have out-of-shape men pumping away at prostitutes hired from our red-light district (and Singapore's prostitutes come from the world over: China, Thailand, Philippines, Kazakhstan...). Previously, the images were still photographs, but more recently I see streaming video available.
Sammyboy has an online forum too, with such intellectual threads as "Where can I find chicks in Singapore?" Other threads mock the Singapore government with no let up.
Yet as far as I know, the MDA has never taken sammyboy to task. Perhaps that's because its ownership has never been verifiable. Fine excuse that, for neither was now-banned fluffboy's ownership.
Please note, I am not calling for MDA action on sammyboy. Readers should know where I stand on freedom of expression. I'm only asking why the same lenient standards can't be applied to sites serving gay men.
Considering that fluffboy could hardly be accused of innocence, one could say the MDA had justification for gunning at it. So, yes, there is some method to the madness, but at the same time, it sure seems like a lot of madness around, in the inconsistent and foolish way the government acts.
The problems lie at two levels.
The law and policies are part of the problem, and the way the bureaucrats go about their responsibilities is another part.
The Broadcasting Act is a piece of legislation that essentially gives carte blanche to the relevant minister and his bureaucrats. It simply empowers the minister to delegate powers to the Media Development Authority to draw up whatever regulations (known as the Internet Code of Practice) they feel necessary. In addition, they authorise the MDA to levy fines on anyone that the MDA themselves consider to have breached the Code.
If anyone is aggrieved by the MDA's imposition of a fine or ban, he can appeal to the minister. This essentially asks the minister to admit that his own department has been feckless and wrong. How many politicians, ever conscious of safeguarding face and never wanting to look incompetent in the eyes of the public would bring such acute embarrassment upon themselves?
The Broadcasting Act does not provide for any role of the courts in the process. This was a point that surprised Reporters Sans Frontieres, a global media watchdog, when they emailed me to ask, "The Media Development Authority can block a website without any court order?"
Yes, they can, and they can levy fines too.
For all practical purposes then, there are no restraints on the MDA.
Using the blank cheque provided by the Broadcasting Act, the MDA has drawn up the present Internet Code of Practice which as you can see above, is highly flawed.
There are conceptual problems, like what is meant by "advocating homosexuality and lesbianism" (item 4(2)(e) of the Code)? The most obvious meaning is that of conversion, but sexual orientation is largely fixed; you cannot convert heterosexuals into homosexuals or vice versa. Or does it mean advocating full acceptance and equal treatment of gay people? If so, the words certainly don't say that. Does it mean depiction of homosexual sex? If so, again, the words don't say that. How can the words mean what they do not say?
There are problems of equity. Why are the rules stricter for sexual minorities than for heterosexual interests?
Secondly, has anyone asked what message is sent out by the difference between a fine and a ban? A fine costs the operator real cash. A ban costs nothing except the rent prepaid on the domain name. With an anonymous, no-holds-barred site, your venture may not have a long life, for the MDA will sooner or later ban it, but you can make a quick killing, getting as raunchy as you wish.
Or then again, you could always upload the same stuff to a new domain name, and carry on.
Yet, the government has said the Broadcasting Act and internet regulation generally is meant to encourage Singaporeans to take responsibility for what they say online. Irresponsibility will be punished.
But look at the way the MDA handled these two cases. The more responsible site was slapped with a fine. The more irresponsible site wasn't.
This absurdity comes out of the fact that the reach of the Singapore government is extremely limited compared to the infinities of the internet. Furthermore, the government knows it cannot build firewalls like China is doing, because Singapore depends on connectivity with the whole world for our economic survival. We cannot go about banning huge numbers of websites.
So the announced policy is to ban 100 sites, as a symbol of our so-called moral rectitude.
Logic tells you then that if these 100 sites are to serve to deter, then whenever action is taken, it must be publicised. The sites must be made examples of.
But publicity only means people will find ways and means of getting to those sites. This in turn means that to be effective, censorship has to be conducted as secretly as possible. So much for their symbolic value.
That explains why the MDA did not publicise their actions when they took them. If not for the press report instigated by someone else, the Singapore public would not have known about this matter.
Even now, the public has no way of knowing what the sites were like and why the MDA found them to be in breach of the rules (but not others). [see addendum 2]. Nor how the figure of $5,000 was arrived at, and why in the first place, the rules are written the way they are. Everything was conducted in the dark.
The MDA may argue that the public was aware of the offensive nature of these sites from the fact that they received complaints. But hang on, complaints and calls for censorship can come out of extremist individuals and agenda-driven special-interest groups.
Looking at the bigger picture, isn't transparency and accountability essential for an open, democratic system? Doesn't our way of doing things leave the door wide open to abuse and corruption?
Is this the best system of governance we can think of?
The other thing about secrecy is that outsiders are given free reign to construe what they want from what little they know of actions taken.
Background information suggests that paedophilic material might have been one of the two chief reasons for the MDA's action, but the MDA has remained tight-lipped about it, pointing only to the anti-homosexuality clause in the Internet Code of Practice.
So when the news of MDA's actions travels around the world, which it did via Reuters, DPA and perhaps some other news agencies, many people will read it as an anti-gay move by an authoritarian government."
After all, the headline in the Reuters story was "Singapore bans gay website". Likewise with the DPA's story, see box, right.
How to avoid such bad press even when the government is doing the right thing?
Very simple. Clearly separate things gay from things paedophilic. Chuck out the rules against homosexuality from the Internet Code of Practice, and live up to internationally acceptable standards of regulation -– equal treatment of homosexual and heterosexual, clear flagging to consumers about adult erotic and explicit content, but no ban.
Yes, clamp down on sites that try to pull in minors, but do it only on that count and nothing else. That way, when headlines go around the world, "Singapore clamps down on paedophile websites", people will applaud, not sniff with suspicion.
Image and credibility counts. It is particularly important when, as a small little country, we depend on the world's goodwill and when we need to attract the best and brightest.
It's bad enough when the Prime Minister, in a hamfisted attempt to burnish Singapore's image says to a crowd of foreign correspondents, "I don't think the government is homophobic," but then proceeds to give a litany of reasons why it cannot be non-homophobic (see the article The government is not homophobic, the Prime Minister says).
It's worse when within 3 weeks, news travels around the world, "Singapore bans gay website".
Is this the best we can do for Brand Singapore?
© Yawning Bread