Dated: 20 February 2001
The National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) released its 4th Annual Report today for the period January 2000 through December 2000 at a press conference chaired by its Chairman, Professor Bernard Tan, who is also Dean of Students at the National University of Singapore. This year's Report focused on ways to develop an effective industry self-regulation structure in Singapore and the promotion of user empowerment tools such as the Family Access Networks (FAN) services offered by the three main Internet Access Service Providers (IASPs) in Singapore.
The NIAC noted that the number of Internet users increased phenomenally from just over 800,000 in 1999 to nearly 2.2 million in 2000, fuelled by vast improvements in technology and the entry of numerous new players offering a wide array of Internet services at lower costs to consumers. The NIAC recognised that even as SBA's Class Licence Scheme and Internet Code of Practice have helped facilitated the healthy growth of the Internet, there is a need for SBA to regularly review its policies to ensure that the regulations stay relevant and robust enough to deal with the issues and challenges thrown up by new technologies and changing demands of the marketplace. The NIAC will continue to advise SBA in this aspect.
The NIAC strongly feels that the social and moral concerns brought about by the pervasiveness of the Internet cannot be addressed by regulations alone, and that the industry and the public, especially parents, can and should play a greater role in protecting the young from the negative aspects of the medium. Last year, in the area of industry self-regulation, the NIAC recommended a three-stage approach which included website labelling, an Industry Content Code of Practice and the setting up of an industry body to administer the Code. The NIAC has made further progress in these areas and the key recommendations are contained in its latest Report.
On website labelling, the NIAC conducted several feedback sessions with industry players on the feasibility of encouraging local content providers to label their websites and found that many were generally supportive of website labelling. Rather than create a content rating system specific to Singapore, the NIAC feels that Singapore should ride on international efforts to develop a global rating standard such as that developed by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), a non-profit organisation based in the US that developed the RSACi voluntary self-rating system.
Last year, the NIAC together with the Parents Advisory Group for the Internet (PAGi) and SBA participated in discussions with ICRA to help refine its rating criteria to take into account local and Asian concerns. Since the beginning of this year, ICRA has revised its rating system and launched an improved version. The NIAC strongly encourages local Internet service and content providers to participate and support such international efforts by rating their websites using these rating tools. Moving forward, the NIAC together with PAGi will continue to study ways to promote website labelling and the development of positive third party templates for Singapore.
Following its last Report which called for the development of an Industry Content Code of Practice to complement SBA's Internet Code of Practice, the NIAC studied the Industry Codes of Practice developed in countries like Australia, Canada, US, UK and Hong Kong to learn from their experiences and determine the key elements that would serve Singapore's needs. The NIAC also held discussions with SBA, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and the Singapore Information Technology Federation (SITF). While the study is still in progress, the NIAC has recommended a list of key objectives and principles it feels should be adopted for Singapore. The SITF has agreed to adopt these principles and incorporate them into the SITF framework. The NIAC urges the IT and Internet industry to support the SITF's efforts in taking the lead to develop an effective industry self-regulation structure model for Singapore. The NIAC further calls for government agencies like the IDA and SBA to lend their support to such industry self-regulation efforts. In particular, it recommends that government agencies study how they can establish incentive schemes to encourage industry players to join the self-regulation movement and agree to abide by its guidelines.
On public education initiatives, the NIAC reported that it has successfully completed Project iSenior which was launched in 1999 to bring the Internet closer to senior citizens. Project iSenior trained some 2,000 senior citizens and assisted in collecting, refurbishing and distributing used computers to selected senior citizens, the Singapore Action Group for the Elderly (SAGE) to set up its IT centre, and the Bishan Home for the Aged. The NIAC also noted that the IDA launched several major programmes last year to web-empower the people sector and bring the benefits of IT and the Internet to senior citizens and lower income households. The NIAC fully supports such initiatives and felt that agencies like the IDA are better placed to conduct public education programmes targeted at the elderly and the disadvantaged.
The NIAC firmly believes that as the Internet becomes an integral part of the Singapore way of life, it is critical to have structured and strong public education programmes in place to educate the public on being discerning users of the medium. The NIAC feels that parents in particular have a critical role to play as they form the first line of defence in protecting their children from undesirable and harmful Net content. Hence, the NIAC welcomes the programmes and activities introduced by PAGi to help train and advise parents on online safety issues and applauds PAGi's success in reaching out to an estimated 10,000 parents last year. It also strongly urges parents to support and participate in PAGi's activities which are aimed at equipping them with the skills and knowledge to guide their children to be astute and responsible users of the Internet.
Another area which the NIAC paid attention to was the promotion of content management tools which empower users to choose what they want to access on the Internet and put greater control of and responsibility for managing harmful content directly into the hands of users such as parents. In particular, the NIAC focused its deliberations on FAN services currently offered by the three main IASPs in Singapore. The NIAC feels that the IASPs should take more pro-active measures to promote FAN and consider re-branding FAN as an attractive, value-added and wholesome family-oriented portal for positive and interesting content suitable for the whole family. The NIAC feels that the IASPs should market and promote FAN more prominently, concurrently with other types of user accounts, to parents, especially those who are not IT savvy enough to manage the commercial filters available in the market. Besides greater efforts to promote FAN, the NIAC recommends that IASPs develop and offer new features, within their current FAN services, which would give parents greater flexibility to manage their children's online activities. These features could include the ability to set surfing time limits and different filtering levels for children of different ages. The NIAC believes there is a growing market demand for such content management tools and encourages the IASPs to actively pursue this demand.
In line with its public education and user empowerment initiatives, the NIAC will be co-organising Safe Surfing 2001 together with PAGi from 22 to 24 February 2001 to raise awareness of online safety issues. Safe Surfing 2001 is the first-ever international convention on online safety which will bring together industry players, educationists, regulators and online safety advocates from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries to share and exchange ideas and best practices on online safety issues. There will also be a public forum for parents to meet and raise issues of concern and learn from the experiences of international online safety experts. The NIAC will, in future, continue to act as a catalyst for new initiatives that will help create greater awareness and understanding of online safety issues.
In conclusion, the NIAC feels that with the mass adoption of the Internet and improvements in technology, there is a need for SBA to continually review its Class Licence Conditions and Internet Code of Practice to ensure its relevance and effectiveness.
The NIAC also urges the IT and Internet industry to improve on its efforts to protect children by developing an Industry Content Code of Practice which can help ensure that Internet service and content providers act in accordance with their social responsibility. The NIAC feels that ultimately, the creation of such a Code is in the interest of the industry since it reinforces the trust and confidence consumers have in the medium, which is necessary for the broad development of Internet businesses.
The NIAC is of the opinion that legislators and government institutions should create a conducive environment that allow an industry self-regulation model to develop in Singapore. The NIAC feels that self-regulation, if properly conceived, reduces the need for additional government legislation and allows the industry greater flexibility in dealing with a fast changing Internet environment.
The NIAC believes that the responsibility to protect children from harmful Net content ultimately lies with the end user, especially parents, but that government agencies like SBA, the IDA and the Ministry of Education (MOE) should work together with organisations like PAGi, the SITF and IASPs to conduct education and awareness campaigns to provide information and training to teach users how to handle Internet content critically and in a discerning way.
Finally, the NIAC feels that the industry, media and public institutions should also help promote the availability and use of filters and user employment tools such as FAN services, educate consumers about how to manage online content and make it easy for parents, teachers and other concerned adults to choose and use these tools. The NIAC also feels that Internet service and content providers should take the initiative to rate their websites based on international rating systems like RSACi on a voluntary basis and a framework should also be created to incentivise them to do so. Industry and community groups should also be encouraged to pool their resources to create rating templates that reflect their concerns and values as well as develop whitelists of positive sites for children which can be incorporated into the ICRA rating system.