Give self-regulation a chance to work online

WHILE there is certainly room for better behaviour on the Internet, we cannot use our behaviour in the real world as the yardstick for what is socially acceptable online behaviour (‘Time for a code of Internet conduct for youth’ by Touch Youth, Touch Community Services, Dec10; and ‘Behaving better online’ by Professor Ang Peng Hwa, Dec 13).

The open, and sometimes heated, discussions on the Internet are important to facilitate understanding and bridge differences, as Mr Howard Lee pointed out (‘Internet: Engage, don’t regulate’; Dec 16).

An Internet code of conduct does not have to be passed into law or be punitive in nature.

Laws are no good unless we can enforce them, and despite attempts in many places around the world, trying to dictate terms on the Internet has proven to be extraordinarily difficult.

The Internet does have its own informal code of conduct, a set of social norms that govern online behaviour, enforced, often ruthlessly, by a jury of peers.

Freedom of expression on the Internet does not necessarily breed anarchy. An individual may be free to express any view online, but doing so also invites the judgment of others who share that online space.

Instead of calling for a fixed set of rules that we expect netizens to abide by, we should first consider empowering them to determine the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour.

As Prof Ang rightly pointed out in his commentary, if we want the people to ‘exercise discernment’ and not have the authorities do it for them, we ought to let the people decide on what can or cannot be said on the Internet.

Like the promotion of kindness and graciousness, public ownership, as opposed to a top-down approach, is more effective in bringing about long-term change.

If we allow the netizens to define what they believe to be acceptable behaviour, we may find ourselves pleasantly surprised at how sensible and moderate the majority of Internet users are.

The use of social media and the Internet will only grow in the foreseeable future. Before we approach the issue of regulating online behaviour, perhaps we should give self-regulation a chance to work and see where it takes us.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

Published in The Straits Times – 30 December 2011

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