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Singapore denies Internet crackdown

Trying to calm the fears of free-speech advocates, the Singapore government said today that it does not intend to censor Internet content.

Trying to calm the fears of free-speech advocates, the Singapore government said today that it does not intend to crack down on Internet content and censor online discussion of politics or any other subject.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Information clarified the government's position after it received a petition from Singaporean Internet users in opposition to "any attempt to limit or control political, religious, or other debate on the Internet."

"What we want to do is mark out the areas clearly so that discussion on politics and religion in Singapore can take place in a way that does not undermine moral values, political instability, or religious harmony in Singapore," the spokesman told The Straits Times, the nation's largest newspaper. The Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry will also address the issue Thursday via a videoconference link to a United Nations panel discussion on Internet commerce.

The government drew international attention in March after announcing that it would legislate controls over the Internet by licensing all access providers under the Singapore Broadcasting Authority. Although it did not specify the scope of the new oversight, the announcement raised concern among Internet libertarians and other free-speech advocates because of the city-state's traditionally heavy-handed policies on controlling information.

Singapore is one of a growing list of Asian countries that are beginning to limit Internet access or information. Restrictive actions have been announced recently by China, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Anxiety over such policies led some 40 Singaporean members of a newsgroup--soc.culture.singapore--to send their petition to the ministry March 30. The signatures were reportedly gathered by a 33-year-old engineer named Benedict Chong and authenticated with state-issued identity card numbers.

The ministry spokesman now says the government had planned no harsh restrictions, only to hold Net content providers responsible for what they publish. The Singapore Embassy in Washington did not respond to telephone inquiries about the report.

"It is proper in this context to require groups which put out Web pages for the purposes of discussing politics and religion, and where the intention is to be broadcast, to be accountable and declare who they are by registering with the SBA," the spokesman told The Straits Times.

Nonetheless, Chong's group believes that the registration will have a chilling effect on individuals and organizations using the Internet in his country. Already, some cybercafes started in Singapore have reportedly stopped users from posting to newsgroups.

The government's policies are scheduled to be finalized in June.