A Singaporean math test question went viral not too long ago, confusing some people and making others wonder how American kids should be taught math. Plenty of other countries perform better on international standardized tests than US kids do, but it doesn't always mean the US should adopt other countries' lesson plans and policies. However, there's always some political pressure to try to change things (not always for the better). Check out some links on Finland and how it has been working to improve its school system since the 1960s.
In Wired Magazine's 4th issue ever, back in 1993, it sent famed author William Gibson to Singapore, leading him to write an amazing article entitled "Disneyland with the Death Penalty," talking about the strange contradictions of the city state. It starts out with this sentence:
"It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'"
Singapore is famous for both its clean, modern and high tech city... and the fact that it is more or less a dictatorship in which no criticism of the government is allowed. Talk to Singaporeans who have made it to the US for more than a little bit and you'll discover somewhat horrific stories about living in that country -- the kind of stuff that almost no one wants to talk about publicly. And in the last few weeks, the actions of the Singaporean government have highlighted just why so many Singaporeans are fearful of speaking out about what the place is really like.
A 16-year-old precocious YouTuber named Amos Yee was arrested last month, basically for saying mean things about Lee Kwan Yew, the country's founder and long-time Prime Minister -- though many say that he was actually the country's dictator -- who died just a few weeks ago.
Amos Yee's "controversial" video is still up as I write this. You can view it here, though I imagine someone may eventually try to take it down.
The title is "Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!" and in it Yee unloads his feelings on LKY and his infamous tendency in going after anyone who criticizes him, including the international press. Yee more or less tells the government to try to go after him... and it did.
Watching the video, though, you see a typical teenager mouthing off to authority. That's what teenagers are supposed to be doing -- and Yee has quite a following as a precocious teenaged commenter on culture, both Singaporean and around the globe. The New Yorker has a profile of Amos, detailing some of his other videos that show him as a pretty typical teenager with opinions -- and the ability to create some fairly entertaining videos, like How to Speak Singlish (the modified English that some Singaporeans use) or his somewhat overwrought review of the movie Boyhood.
As the New Yorker's Nathan Heller writes about Yee:
Yee has all the hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country. Americans, who enjoy the benefits of free media, have a responsibility to take him more seriously than they take the government that has tried to quiet him for thinking freely in the public sphere. And those of us in the Fourth Estate have a duty to spread word of his ridiculous charges. If people like Amos Yee end up the custodians of our profession, the future of countries like Singapore can be brighter than their past.
And yet, he's facing the potential of three years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines, based on "Penal Code Section 298" which forbids "the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person," as well as a recent anti-cyberbullying law that the country passed.
We talk a lot on Techdirt about the importance of freedom of expression, and have called out other examples where people are pushing for laws against cyberbullying, with an expressed interest in stopping people from "hurting feelings" by unkind speech online. But when you have laws that make people criminals for merely expressing their opinions, you are shutting down the very way in which people learn and grow. Expressing opinions, having debates about them is a key part of growth, intelligence and innovation. Singapore wants to be seen as a modern and innovative country -- and yet at the same time it allows no dissent and no freedom of expression. It is a travesty.
Even some in Singapore have been willing to point out that this is ridiculous, and only serves to show the world that Singapore's ego is fragile that it cannot stand up to a bit of criticism:
What Amos Yee did was crude, rude and insensitive. But he is, at the end of the day, a provocative child playing at being hardcore. He’s certainly not the first – it was only the lack of access to YouTube that saved many of us from eternal embarrassment in our teenage years – and he won’t be the last by any stretch of the imagination. Is Singapore really so fragile, so easily threatened by offensive comment, that there was a need to charge a kid in court?
What Amos and the two protesters did were against the law – but it’s also high time that we think about the laws we have, and whether the trade-offs made make sense in today’s context. Is the Singaporean situation really so precarious that freedom of speech and assembly needs to be curtailed to such an extent?
Of course, given the way in which general deference to authority is demanded in Singapore, plenty of others have come out in favor of throwing Yee in jail. The New Yorker piece describes how ridiculous some of this has become:
In the days after Yee’s arrest, a slew of local celebrities, including three Singaporean starlet types, were interviewed about his videos on national TV. In sequences depressing to watch, they all sided with the state. “If you say that, ‘Oh, people can say whatever they want, all the time,’ then what about those people who are listening?” Joshua Tan, a young actor, said. Well, what about them? The suggestion that citizens should withhold political criticism for fear of offense is preposterous—far more embarrassing to Singapore than any videos by Yee could be.
We see this same attack on free speech in other places (often college campuses) today, as well as in certain areas of social media, in which people immediately leap to the idea that we need "new laws" to punish those who say things that people don't like, because "what about those people who are listening." Those people can be offended. And they can have their feelings hurt. Because that's how a free society is supposed to be -- where not everyone agrees with one another, and sometimes people say things you don't like. And that's good for the community. It's good for ideas and intelligence in that it allows for people to be challenged and to improve their arguments.
Singapore, apparently, wants to put teenagers in jail for acting like teenagers. And thus, it appears that little has changed since that William Gibson article more than two decades ago -- and that's a real shame. In the age of the internet, Singapore has continued to try to position itself as a high tech mecca. But if it can't handle free expression, it's going to find that a difficult image to maintain.
The genesis of Singapore's surveillance net dates back to 2002, and traces all the way back to former US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter. Peter Ho, Singapore's Secretary of Defense, met with Poindexter and was introduced to the Dept. of Defense's Total Information Awareness (TIA) aspirations.
It would gather up all manner of electronic records -- emails, phone logs, Internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports -- and then, based on predetermined scenarios of possible terrorist plots, look for the digital "signatures" or footprints that would-be attackers might have left in the data space. The idea was to spot the bad guys in the planning stages and to alert law enforcement and intelligence officials to intervene.
Though initially presented as an anti-terrorism tool (something Singapore was looking for after several recent terrorist attacks), it first found usefulness as a way to track and predict the spread of communicable diseases.
Ho returned home inspired that Singapore could put a TIA-like system to good use. Four months later he got his chance, when an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) swept through the country, killing 33, dramatically slowing the economy, and shaking the tiny island nation to its core. Using Poindexter's design, the government soon established the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning program (RAHS, pronounced "roz") inside a Defense Ministry agency responsible for preventing terrorist attacks and "nonconventional" strikes, such as those using chemical or biological weapons -- an effort to see how Singapore could avoid or better manage "future shocks."
Singapore politicians sold "big data" to citizens by playing up the role it would play in public safety. Meanwhile, back in the US, the program began to fall apart as privacy advocates and legislators expressed concerns about the amount of information being gathered. In Singapore, this was just the beginning of its surveillance state. In the US, it became an expansion of post-9/11 intelligence gathering. Rather than end the program, it was simply parted-out to the NSA and other agencies under new names by sympathetic lawmakers.
Singapore's TIA program soon swelled to include nearly anything the government felt it could get away with gathering. The government used the data to do far more than track potential terrorists. It used the massive amount of data to examine -- and plan for -- nearly every aspect of Singaporean existence.
Across Singapore's national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren -- and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to "gauge the nation's mood" about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.
Making this data collection even easier is the Singaporean government's demand that internet service can only be issued to citizens with government-issued IDs. SIM cards for phones can only be purchased with a valid passport. Thousands of cameras are installed and government law enforcement agencies actively prowl social media services to track (and punish) offensive material.
But this is accepted by Singapore citizens, for the most part. The mix of Indians, Chinese and Malays makes the government especially sensitive to racially-charged speech. The country's dependence on everyone around it makes everyday life a bit more unpredictable than that enjoyed by its much larger neighbors. In exchange for its tightly-honed national security aims (along with housing and education), Singaporeans have given up their freedom to live an unsurveilled life. And for the doubters, the government has this familiar rationale to offer.
"In Singapore, people generally feel that if you're not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don't have anything to worry about," one senior government official told me.
What goes unmentioned is just how easy it is to become an "opponent" of the Singaporean state. It can take nothing more than appearing less than grateful for the many government programs offered in "exchange" for diminished civil liberties. While the government goes above and beyond to take care of its citizens' needs, it acts swiftly to punish or publicly shame those who are seen to spurn its advances, so to speak. Not for nothing did sci-fi writer William Gibson calls this Singapore "Disneyland with the Death Penalty."
So, to make the perfect police/security state, you need a small country and a mixture of government largesse and palpable threats. You need a nation so precariously balanced that it "shouldn't [even] exist," according to one top-ranking government official. You also need a nation not built on civil liberties. Despite this, US intelligence agencies still view Singapore as a prime example of what could have been.
[M]any current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they'd build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren't standing in the way. After Poindexter left DARPA in 2003, he became a consultant to RAHS, and many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore's embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country's curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people's basic needs -- housing, education, security -- in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of "order" is all-encompassing.
If this was what the NSA and others were pushing for, there's no hope of achieving it. The Snowden leaks have undermined a lot of these agencies' stealthy nudges in this direction. The US government can never hope to achieve the same level of deference, not even in the best of times. A melting pot that has folded in refugees from authoritarian nations -- along with the country's founding principles -- have made many Americans predisposed against views of the government as an entity worthy of reverence. Widespread abuse of the public's trust has further separated the government from any reverential thought.
This isn't to say the desire to convert US citizens into nothing more than steady streams of data doesn't exist. The NSA's previous director often stated his desire to "collect it all." In the hands of the government, useful things could be done with all of this data (like possibly heading off epidemics, etc.), but the more likely outcome would be collecting for collecting's sake -- which violates the civil liberties the country was built on -- and the use of the information in abusive ways.
It may work for Singapore, an extremely controlled environment. But that doesn't necessarily make it right. And it certainly shouldn't be viewed as some sort of surveillance state utopia.
It turns out that both headlines are accurate, though it's the second one that's the bigger issue here. You can see the details laid out (quite clearly) by Singapore's Ministry of Law. It notes that they currently have a DMCA-like notice-and-takedown setup, but have apparently decided that this is somehow too burdensome for rightsholders who have pushed the government to come up with an alternative plan (gee, this sounds familiar...). They don't seem to explain why this is so burdensome, they just say that there's too much "uncertainty" in having to actually "establish the liability for infringement." So, rather than do that, it appears that the Singaporean government is willing to chuck basic due process, and go for flat-out censorship without due process.
Under the proposed legislative changes, rights holders will also be allowed to apply directly to the Courts for injunctions to prevent access to pirate sites without having to first establish ISPs’ liability for copyright infringement. This judicial process is more efficient and avoids implicating the ISPs unnecessarily.
So, just as in SOPA, the idea is that rightsholders can suddenly declare that certain sites are "rogue" and courts can agree to wipe them off the face of the internet, by ordering ISPs to block access to them. The Singaporean government insists this won't be a problem for legitimate sites, because it seems to have bought into the Hollywood fallacy that what is a "legitimate" site and what is a "pirate" site are somehow obvious, rather than a spectrum in which nearly everything is some form of gray.
This is targeted at websites that show a blatant disregard for, and that clearly infringe, copyrights. Legitimate search engines and content sharing sites such as Google and YouTube will not be affected.
Notice how they just blithely insist that YouTube is legitimate. That may well be news to YouTube's lawyers, who just concluded (via settlement) a seven-year battle in which Viacom literally insisted that YouTube was the equivalent of a video Grokster (the file sharing service that lost its court case for enabling infringement). And that's where the real problem is. It's easy to claim that it's obvious when a site is legitimate and when it's not, but reality doesn't work that way. For years, many people were pretty sure that Napster was perfectly legitimate under the rules of the Sony Betamax ruling, but then a court decided otherwise. Similarly, many assumed that YouTube was illegal, until that case settled. Hell, even the VCR was a "pirate tool" until the Supreme Court ended that argument thirty years ago.
And, of course pretty much all of modern entertainment history is filled with similar examples of new innovations in the delivery and consumption of content that are at first deemed illegal, until suddenly they're not. The player piano, the phonograph machine, radio, television, cable television, the photocopier, the DVR, the VCR, the mp3 player, and many other innovations were first decried as "pirate" technologies. And then they weren't. But with the Singaporean government insisting that it's somehow obvious which ones are legitimate and which ones are not, Singapore is almost guaranteeing that important legitimate innovations that help move the industry forward will, instead, get censored and blocked across the entire country.
That's no way to present yourself as an innovative country.
So, yes, later in the document, they reject three strikes (and administrative, rather than judicial, blocking) as too draconian and intrusive:
Countries like Spain and Malaysia have implemented an administrative site-blocking approach where rights holders can apply for site-blocking orders from a Government-appointed body. Countries like France have introduced a “graduated response” system where individual internet users are notified of their infringing activity by the ISP, and can be penalised if they continue their infringing activity despite repeated notifications (or “warnings”).
We considered the alternatives above but assessed that they may not be suitable in Singapore’s context as they are too intrusive on internet users.
But, in many ways, the alternative "solution" that Singapore appears to be supporting is worse than three strikes. It's outright censorship against innovation, based on a faulty belief that it will be immediately obvious whether or not new innovations and technologies are "legitimate" or "pirates."
The first six months of 2012 saw Europeans taking to the streets in order to kill off ACTA in the European Union. Against all the odds, they succeeded in that aim, as the European Parliament voted to reject ACTA on 4 July last year. That defeat has certainly been burned into the memories of Karel de Gucht, the EU Commissioner responsible for negotiating first ACTA and now TAFTA/TTIP. When he was asked whether the latter might see ACTA sneak in by the backdoor, here's what he replied:
"ACTA, one of the nails in my coffin. I'm not going to reopen that discussion. Really, I mean, I am not a masochist. I'm not planning to do that.
If the Commission advances new basic legislation, which I think she should, we will revisit the question, but I'm not going to do this by the back door".
In determining the amount of damages for infringement of intellectual property rights, a Party's judicial authorities shall have the authority to consider, inter alia, any legitimate measure of value the right holder submits, which may include lost profits, the value of the infringed goods or services measured by the market price, or the suggested retail price.
Those with good memories may recall that something similar was to be found in ACTA, and that it was one of the problematic areas that led the European Parliament to reject the treaty. In fact, it's not similar, it's word-for-word identical with Article 9, paragraph 1 of ACTA (pdf). And it's not the only section that's been cut-and-pasted from ACTA: several other paragraphs are also direct copies.
This raises an interesting question. At the moment, the EU-Singapore FTA has only been "initialled": that means it must still be approved by the European Commission, the Council of Ministers representing the member nations, and the European Parliament. So will the EU's MEPs reject the new trade agreement because it represents ACTA by the backdoor -- or at least a part of it? That seems unlikely.
But if the European Parliament does pass the EU-Singapore FTA, de Gucht might then argue that the same sections from ACTA can now be pasted into TAFTA/TTIP, since they are no longer problematic. And if he does so, perhaps he will be tempted to include a few more sections from ACTA, on the grounds that he is doing nothing "by the backdoor", but doing it in the full view of everyone....
So far, we've mostly avoided a Malthusian catastrophe, but the human population is likely to grow to about 9 billion by 2050 (or somewhere between 7.5 and 10.5 billion, depending on your estimates). By that time, huge cities could house enormous populations, but the resources to feed all those people might need to be shipped in from vast farmlands. Who knows, maybe there will be some suburban middle ground where billions of people live near locally-produced agriculture. Vertical farming technologies could make it possible to grow food without acres and acres of land. Here are just a few links on some futuristic farming techniques.
Despite growing protests and concerns about the next big US trade agreement (with Europe), the discussions on the Trans Pacific Partnership continue to move forward, with the latest round taking place in Singapore this week. And... once again, it's a story of near complete secrecy, and a total lack of transparency. Of key concern, of course, are the sections of the agreement on patents and copyrights, which the public has not seen. There was a leak from over two years ago, but nothing since then. The USTR and others say that they want the agreement completed by this fall, and it is a complete travesty that they have not been willing to share the details publicly. Negotiating a treaty in complete secrecy -- especially when the "input" on the IP chapter is driven by industry stakeholders, rather than the public -- means that the treaty almost certainly is going to be a disaster that is harmful to the public.
What's most amazing is that the USTR doesn't seem to recognize that the playing field has changed since the last time they did this. The rejection of SOPA, followed by the widespread rejection of ACTA (even if the USTR is in total denial about this) shows that the public is not at all willing to accept backroom deals that fundamentally expand bad patent and copyright policies around the globe and (worse) lock us in to things that the public does not believe are legitimate.
The USTR's continued insistence on secrecy, combined with the few leaks of information showing just how extreme a position they're setting out for themselves on patents and copyrights, suggests an organization so totally out of touch that it is destroying its own credibility. Any reasonable organization would recognize that the old backroom negotiations method of creating these kinds of deals is no longer acceptable. That the USTR refuses to admit this only increases awareness of just how out of touch the organization and its leadership remain.
While traditional "copyright" industry maximalist players like to insist that any weakening of copyright would be disastrous for the economy, the evidence almost always shows the exact opposite. Exceptions to copyright, such as fair use, over and over seem to show that fair use has a positive economic impact. Thanks to a change in Singaporean copyright law that expanded fair use in 2005, researchers were given a chance to see if they could quantify just how much of an economic impact there was. The recently released research shows that increasing fair use likely helped grow the Singaporean economy. There was a definite correlation to start:
The counterfactual impact analysis of fair use amendments in Singapore undertaken here demonstrates that flexible fair use policy positively influences growth rates in private copying technology industries. In 2010, five years after the policy intervention, Singapore's fair use amendments are correlated with a 3.33% increase in value-added (as % of GDP) for private copying technology industries. Prior to the amendment of fair use policies, private copying technology industries experienced - 1.97% average annual growth. After the changes were introduced, the same industries enjoyed a 10.18% average annual growth rate. This resulted in a total increase of € 2.27 billion in value-added for private copying technology industries in that period. The results show that, prior to fair use amendments, the private copying industries in Singapore were in recession. After fair use amendments, this group experienced a rapid increase in growth rates and continued to exhibit strong growth over the five year period.
Yes, that part is just about correlation -- and, as we know, correlation does not necessarily show causation. However, with additional research, you can sometimes show the linkage, and thankfully, this report tries to do so -- by looking at a "control group" of companies in tech manufacturing and services, who weren't directly impacted by changes in fair use. In that case, there was basically no growth.
Finally, the report then also looked at the "copyright industry" and whether it lost significant revenue because of this change (and specifically if the increases on the "private copying technology industries" are drowned out by decreases from copyright companies). But, no such luck:
There was no significant change in growth rates for the copyright group before and after fair use amendments when measured in terms of real economic growth (value added as % of GDP).
There was some slowing of the growth rate, but not as a % of GDP (so, in real terms). The conclusion is pretty clear:
We suggest fair use amendments in Singapore did not negatively affect the copyright industries significantly because private copying technologies, which experienced high growth as an industry group after the fair use amendments, increase the value of copyrighted works to consumers. While one might expect a rise in private copying technology industries to result in a significant recession for the copyright industries, this has not been the case in Singapore since the introduction of more flexible fair use policy in 2005.
The counterfactual impact analysis results for the Singapore case study show that fair use policy is correlated with higher growth rates in private copying technology industries, while having a very limited impact on copyright industries.
This seems important, especially considering that very few countries have expansive fair use provisions in copyright law -- and when they try to implement them, they're often shot down as legacy players insist that fair use would "put a chokehold" on their industries. The evidence seems to really suggest quite the opposite. But, we're not dealing with people used to caring about evidence, when pushing anti-fair use agendas.
In an apparent effort to break the deadlock in negotiations for an intellectual property rights (IPR) chapter in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), several countries are proposing that certain provisions in a U.S. proposal be replaced with language from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), according to informed sources.
Sources said that other ACTA signatories involved in the TPP – New Zealand, Australia and Singapore – want to substitute language from the agreement’s criminal offenses section with the proposed U.S. language on criminal enforcement, according to sources in Dallas.
Some of the more "moderate" participating countries have realized that TPP's criminal enforcement provisions are simply disproportionate:
the ACTA and the U.S. proposal [for TPP] both would require countries to provide for criminal procedures and penalties at least in cases of "willful" counterfeiting of trademarks and copyright piracy on a "commercial scale."
However, the U.S. proposal contains a much stricter interpretation of what constitutes commercial scale because it would cover significant infringements for both the purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain as well as acts that result in no direct or financial gain.
One source said this provision could criminally punish an individual who has committed a significant act of infringement but does not intend to gain financially from it. IPR industry sources defend this approach as capturing users of file sharing services who do not stand to gain financially by sharing a large amount of pirated content.
That last comment is noteworthy, because it shows that the copyright industries want to punish general users swapping unauthorized copies with criminal sanctions even if there is no money involved. It confirms that these treaties are not really about fighting organized crime, as they are often presented, but truly a war on online sharing itself, where the aim is to put ordinary people behind bars.
To break the deadlock on this issue, the moderate wing of the TPP club is apparently suggesting that the equivalent ACTA provisions should be re-used. It's interesting to see ACTA, which is still being fiercely fought in Europe because of its harsh and unbalanced nature, presented here as a milder option compared to TPP. If nothing else, that negotiating calculus emphasizes just how extreme TPP is.
However, it's also disturbing that ACTA, although not yet in force, is already being taken as the new baseline. Indeed, the article quoted above notes that ACTA's provisions "represent a much higher standard than the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)" - the previous benchmark here.
Moreover, as regards the current "compromise" idea of using ACTA's provisions instead of the US proposals for TPP, an industry source had the following to say:
the U.S. IPR text largely reflects the U.S.-Korea FTA [Free Trade Agreement] and it would be unlikely the U.S. would agree to provisions that are less strict in the area of criminal enforcement.
As far as the US is concerned, it seems, every treaty in this area, whether bilateral (as in the US-Korea FTA) or multilateral (as with ACTA and TPP), is part of a policy ratchet that allows change in only one direction: more. The unspoken assumption that more copyright and more enforcement are always better is one of the key reasons why SOPA failed, ACTA is meeting such resistance, and even TPP is stumbling.
This keeps happening. Governments forget that the purpose of intellectual property law is to provide the best net value to the public, instead of thinking that it's just to help "industry," on the incorrect assumption that this must benefit the public in the long run. Han alerts us to the news that Singapore has now set up an "IP Steering Committee" to try to turn the city/state into an "intellectual property hub." The steering committee appears to have lots of industry representatives, and government officials who are in charge of representing the industry's interests -- but not a single person representing the interests of the public. That seems like a pretty major oversight, and more or less guarantees that what comes out of this will be abused by companies, rather than a useful and effective system for the benefit of the public.