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March 12, 1996

Singapore Internet Users Unhappy
With Loss of Refuge in Land of Rules

By JOE McDONALD
SINGAPORE (AP) -- Felix Ng surfs the Internet to pick up stock tips. He doesn't argue politics or look for pictures of naked starlets.

That's fine with Singapore's government. It says people like him aren't the target of its new plan to censor the Net. In fact, officials say, their effort to screen out materials on sex, religion and politics won't affect most Internet activities on this island city-state.

But even Ng and other Singaporeans who won't be directly affected are unhappy at the loss of what was a refuge from the thicket of rules that regulate books, movies, politics and nearly every aspect of Singaporean life.

"Singapore is very much restrictive, where people cannot talk. So the only media we can use is the Net," said Ng, who works for an electronics company. "If they want to curb it, we would have to keep everything to ourselves."

The government says its plan, announced last week, is intended to keep out pornography and hate literature that could incite racial and religious violence in this multi-ethnic society of 3 million people.

Regulators will scrutinize Internet sites about politics or religion, and can block Singaporean users from connecting with foreign sites the government deems undesirable. Sites run by Singapore political parties will have to get government licenses.

"A balance must be struck between free access to information and the need to maintain the values of society," Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in a speech on Thursday, March 8, to a conference of Southeast Asian officials.

Singapore isn't the first country to try to control the Internet. But there are few places where the clash between the liberating power of high technology and the government's desire to control it could be more intense.

Goh's administration has aggressively promoted the Internet -- an almost anarchic global web of interconnected computers -- using it for official business, connecting schools and libraries and encouraging private businesses to explore its money-making possibilities.

One in three homes in Singapore has a computer, and the number of Internet accounts doubled last year to 100,000, according to the National Computer Board. It says 5 percent to 10 percent of Singaporeans regularly use the Internet.

"We are slightly below the U.S., but comparable to anyplace else, including Japan and Australia," said Marc Tan, assistant director of the board's Internet activities.

A government plan calls for connecting every home to a computer network by 2000. According to Tan, one neighborhood so far has been equipped with a cable TV system that also can carry computer traffic at dozens of times the rate of phone lines.

But at the same time the island was building up its stretch of the information superhighway, regulators were preparing to try to control -- and even to block -- traffic on it.

Singapore already has some of the world's strictest media controls.

Erotic movies and magazines are banned. So are private TV satellite dishes. Newspapers must be licensed. Foreign newspapers and magazines have occasionally been banned, including the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Communications laws passed by Parliament in 1994 included provisions for regulating computer services, and the Ministry of Information spent nearly a year researching the guidelines announced last Tuesday.

Since the start of Internet use in Singapore, the government has blocked some traffic by ordering access services not to connect to some sites, including those with "alt.sex" in the address.

But the government did little to prepare its people for the day they would lose nearly unrestricted access to a network linking tens of millions of people in countries around the world.

"When the government encouraged people to post views over the Net and now they are censoring it, it's very contradictory," said Ng.

In private conversations, other Singaporeans who use the Internet expressed similar dissatisfaction. But because the government often responds harshly to criticism, they declined to be quoted.

Not all Internet users think the new regulations are a bad idea.

"It's like putting up a giant sunshade to make sure everybody's protected from ultraviolet, rather than relying on people to wear hats," said Cheong Ee Fun, a sophomore at Nanyang Technological University and president of its 400-member Computer Society.

The government hasn't turned its proposed rules into law yet, and many details are unclear.

Regulators haven't decided how the rules will apply to foreign services such as Compuserve and America Online, said Ahmad Shuhaimi, spokesman for the Singapore Broadcasting Authority,

In addition, computer users point out that corporations in Singapore lease lines that connect them directly to the Internet, giving their employees a way to evade the censoring effort.

Schools, libraries and cafes offering Internet access will be required to supervise that use, but it isn't clear who will be held responsible if a user still manages to receive forbidden pictures or information.

At the Cybercafe@boatquay, which opened four months ago on Boat Quay downtown, about 1,000 customers a week use Internet terminals, the manager, Richard Low, said. He said the cafe doesn't require customers to identify themselves, and doesn't plan to start doing so.

"I don't think we will demand this, because it will be very difficult on our part, and on the customer's part, to keep track," Low said. "We have to trust the customers not to misuse the system."


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