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Black-ribbon protest in Singapore

Opponents of Singapore's Internet law launched a black-ribbon protest.

The Singapore online community has responded to a new Internet law by launching a "Responsibility Not Regulation" black-ribbon campaign that itself could be illegal under statutes that took effect today.

Last week, the Singapore Broadcast Authority declared that companies or groups providing Internet access or content must be licensed with the government to protect the "public morals, political stability and religious harmony" of the economically supercharged island nation.

A check of the published guidelines shows a wide range of subjects that the Broadcasting Authority says "should not be allowed," including racial or religious satire, homosexuality, and content that "misleads or alarms" the public or "jeopardizes national defense."

The wide range of possible interpretation of the prohibitions has already alarmed some within Singapore and abroad, and opponents have launched an online campaign symbolized by a black ribbon. Ironically, their Web site could be interpreted as "contents which excite disaffection against the Government," another one of the categories banned by the Broadcasting Authority.

The registration rules, which charge up to $1,000 for a license, have already persuaded one user to move a site of Buddhist writings, listed by the government as an example of religious material that needs to be registered, from a Singapore server to one in the United States.

Curiously, the Broadcasting Authority lists news services and individual home pages as exempt from licensing and therefore unaffected by the new regulation of content. But a spokesman for the agency said over the weekend that financial institutions that provide online news and commentary are also subject to the new regulations, according to the Singapore-based Business Times Online.

Financial institutions quoted in the report said they aren't worried by the new laws, however, as their online content is already scrutinized by the country's stock exchange officials.

Foreign companies like Global One and UUNet Technologies that provide backbone connections for Singapore's national Internet service providers don't expect to be affected either by the tax or by the government's censorship.

"On the surface it seems unlikely we'd be required to have a license," said Eric Scace, vice president, international development at UUNet, which focuses mainly on the business market. Nor does Scace seem too concerned about the effects of the law on free speech.

"With respect to what the Singapore government is likely to impose, we don't see it as having a major impact. It goes against the culture I was raised in, but the culture that exists in other countries is different," Scace said. "Our job is to move information around. We have no interest in what's inside that information."

But the Singapore government does, and the new laws give its Broadcasting Authority the right to ask ISPs to remove content as specific as Web pages and newsgroup postings from their service.

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