The Role of Regulations in Shaping Singapore’s Live Streaming Landscape

A brief explanation of what live streaming really is needed for a better understanding and knowledge of the core of this industry. This is because some would have mistaken live streaming Singapore as simply a video. Live streaming is actually a video that is recorded and broadcast in real-time. It can be distributed to many different people at the same time, and videos can be distributed to many for viewing at a later time. Live streaming could be interactive, where broadcasters and viewers can communicate with a chat-type system. High-speed internet connection and a video camera are all that are needed to broadcast or view live streaming videos. An example of live streaming platforms that are popular are BiliBili and Huya.

This can be proven as live streaming is a flourishing industry in Asia, where consumers are increasingly willing to spend money on their favorite performers. A forecast by China-based consultancy iResearch Consulting in October said revenues from live streaming in the region will reach US$4.4 billion (S$6 billion) this year, before nearly doubling to US$8.63 billion by 2022. From the forecast, it is shown that the live streaming Singapore industry is profitable, and many more would venture into this industry. Therefore, it is important to know how policymakers would control and regulate this industry.

Regulations in the Live Streaming Industry

Content regulations, in contrast to licensing requirements, are targeted at the nature of the content streamed. Guidelines on the free-to-air radio and TV programme codes implemented by the Media Development Authority are to be extended to internet broadcasters. This would mean that all internet broadcasters are to adhere to an Advertising Code and a set of programming standards. Failure to comply has an adverse effect on the licensee’s $50,000 bond. The availability of mature content filtering would also require broadcasters to classify their content and restrict access or risk having their content classified as R21 being disallowed. The ultimate objective is to retain an “environment that is conducive to family values and community bonding” by regulating content which is far-reaching compared to old broadcasting mediums. This has led to heavy self-censorship by content providers, something which would be considered good practice in the eyes of regulations.

Measures to make content providers more responsible do not end there. Broadcasters are required to make a $50,000 performance bond to ensure compliance with the FTA Programme Code that TV broadcasters currently abide by. This bond will be used to pay for necessary or desired sanctions with any remainder refunded back to the licensee. Changes to the programming code and advertising code would most likely be made to apply specifically to internet broadcasters. Overall it is clear that licensing requirements are set to make it easier for regulators to police and take action against those who fail to comply with content regulations.

Though not specified, it is not wrong to hypothesize that this regulatory system would be extended to include all internet streaming services. This would mean obtaining a class licence and further licences for services gauged to have higher impacts. The main reason for this would be to make broadcasters more responsible for what they transmit and making it easier to hold those who breach content regulations accountable.

Live streaming businesses must necessarily get a broadcasting licence before commencing any sort of broadcasting service. While this would present itself as a hindrance, a proprietary system for class licence broadcasting has been implemented for “low impact, value-added” services such as teletext and closed-circuit video programming where a simple notification suffices.

Regulations are a norm for all industries, and streaming land is no exception to this. In fact, new entrants interested in providing streaming services may find themselves caught in old broadcasting regulations. The traditional regulation for broadcasters in Singapore is laced with licensing requirements and content regulations.

Licensing Requirements

Licensees will be required to regularly review the code of practice to familiarize themselves with industry standards. Subsequently, they will be required to comply with any changes to the code which are deemed to be in the public interest. Failure to comply with operating conditions and/or breaching any provisions under the act may result in the suspension or revocation of the license.

The licensing regime implemented has created a substantial barrier to entry for new internet media companies. This, in effect, protects traditional media companies who are licensed to provide similar services. New companies looking to venture into live streaming may find that having to become a class licensee could be uneconomical at their current stage of development. Where the licensee fee and the period of validity for the license will be prescribed by the IMDA, additional operating conditions may be imposed on the licensee when the license is granted. This includes programming standards, advertising standards, and requirements to contribute to public services such as providing closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Any live streaming service looking to provide broadcasting services in Singapore must be a “class” licensee as providing one-off event coverage falls under this category. Failure to obtain the relevant license is an offence under the act and can result in a fine not exceeding $100,000 or an imprisonment term not exceeding 3 years. Furthermore, action may be taken to disable the broadcasting service and the offender may also be prohibited from providing any broadcasting services or holding office in the broadcasting industry for a period not exceeding 15 years. An internet service provider can also be issued a written direction by the Minister to prevent access by end-users to a broadcasting service which is provided without a license.

In Singapore, a live streaming service falls under a “broadcasting service” as it provides access to audio or audio-visual content over the internet. A relevant licensee would be classified as either a “class” or “individual” licensee. A class licensee provides broadcasting services of a specified class to be provided to the public. An example of a class licensee in a live streaming context would be a video on demand service providing TV shows. An individual licensee provides broadcasting services to be provided to the public, consisting of content specified by the individual licensee.

The licensing requirements to be a “relevant licensee” in Singapore are provided under the Broadcasting Act. According to Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), entities that provide a service with the sole or primary purpose of providing access to TV or radio services must be licensed by them to ensure that the content provided is in line with the public interest.

Content Restrictions

For the purpose of comparing live streamers as against traditional broadcasters, it is necessary to quote the standards for free-to-air TV. The underlying principles can be found in the Internet Code of Practice, a modified set of Internet Content Standards, Programme codes to the content standards, and a host of advisories and guidelines known collectively as the iN2015 Content Regulation Framework. Take the example of a blogger who otherwise would not be deemed a “content provider”. Under the latter framework, content providers are not required to actively ensure that content complies with the law. However, as the MDA is aware that bloggers are blurring the line between public and private content and thus influencing societal values, the regulation is in reality far-reaching.

Licensing conditions and programme codes have been imposed upon traditional free-to-air broadcasters. In the case of live streamers, conditions specific to Internet content standards have yet to be stated as of the time of writing. Nevertheless, it is made clear that class-licensed Internet content providers and new media intermediaries are still required to abide by a modified set of Internet Content Standards.

Live broadcasting in Singapore is regulated, just like traditional broadcast outlets. For free-to-air TV operators, such regulation is tagged with a “class licence”. The same regulatory model is applied to “content services” over the Internet. As the licensing requirements to become an Internet content provider constitute a significant topic by themselves, it is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate on whether live streamers would need to also apply for such a licence. Nonetheless, it is necessary to establish the existence of content standards and rules as imposed by the MDA.

Impact of Regulations on Singapore’s Live Streaming Landscape

By linking with live streaming service providers, Mediacorp is also able to stay updated on the latest trends and constantly engage their audience in a wide variety of topics. Furthermore, with the subscription of services, Singaporeans may be able to witness exclusive content like e-sports and live coverage of major events like the upcoming Olympics. This may bring huge positive effects in uniting Singaporeans together to support national teams.

Licensed live streaming platforms provide the audience in Singapore with an alternative for consuming media content. They portray live streaming as a safer option due to better regulation of content, thus protecting race and religious harmony. A great example would be the launch of Mediacorp’s live streaming service ‘Toggle’. Toggle provides content from free-to-air channels and also original content not found on local television. This option is excellent as Singaporeans are able to access local content without needing to go through non-licensed platforms. Non-licensed platforms may contain a wide variety of content, sometimes containing mature or even harmful content illegal in some countries. This could affect Singapore’s youths and young children who are not supposed to be exposed to such content and lead to adverse effects on their behavior. At times, this service is also available at a cheaper rate or even for free, making it the latest promotions not the best for the nation.

Growth of Licensed Live Streaming Platforms

Since the implementation of Singapore’s Broadcasting (Class License) Notification in 1996, the Media Development Authority (MDA) (now Infocomm Media Development Authority or IMDA) has regularly licensed broadcast services and channel operators for the simultaneous conveyance of moving images and sounds over the internet. Until recently, attempts at developing live streaming platforms have been seen as extensions of existing free-to-air and subscription-based television services, such as Toggle, TVMobile, and Singtel’s mioTV. Deployment of these platforms was rare, attributed to the generally high cost of live broadcasting compared to Video-On-Demand services, as well as high entry barriers, limited mobility of viewers, and regulatory obligations to categorize live content for age-appropriateness. Live broadcasts were also available for marketing events or special web features by non-broadcasting companies, although there existed no data on the extent of these activities. As such, overseas live streaming providers have had little impact on Singaporean audiences. The new live streaming trend considered in this paper stems from globally accessible content sharing platforms such as, Ustream, and YouTube Live, which have been gaining traction not only in offering user-created content but also in the acquisition of broadcasting rights for major music, sporting, and entertainment events. It is this type of service now regulated under the Internet Code of Practice, and it is unlikely that overseas providers who fall under the licensing requirement will geo-block access from Singaporean users.

Compliance Challenges for Content Creators

Another significant concern is the MDA’s extension of the Public Service Broadcast (PSB) Programmes code and television advertisements and sponsorship code to regulate internet content. Initially intended to educate viewers on societal requirements across different age groups, PSB programs must also exhibit a quality that distinguishes them from commercial TV programs and remain free from partisan views. This further restricts the content that can be shown and may lead to self-censorship to avoid conflicts with regulations. Advertisement guidelines, although similar to general regulations, emphasize that advertisements should not damage the reputation or integrity of Singapore. Consequently, some content creators may choose to avoid advertisements altogether to prevent potential conflicts with regulations, affecting those who rely on advertisements to fund their projects or websites.

Content creators in Singapore face numerous compliance issues in the highly regulated media space. The Media Development Authority (MDA) has implemented rules for video content, prohibiting the online presence of anything considered a Party Political film or video program. This poses challenges for content creators, as the MDA can request the removal of videos if they are deemed to violate these regulations. The definition of what constitutes political content is ambiguous, potentially impacting a wide range of content. This uncertainty creates anxiety for content creators, who constantly question the suitability of their material for online platforms. For instance, a local animator who produces videos mocking political events expressed concerns about unintentionally violating regulations and facing consequences.

Consumer Protection Measures

With online transactions becoming more prevalent in today’s streaming society, it is essential for this new framework to actively cater to the recent evolution of payment services for the protection of consumers’ personal interests and enhancing the user’s experience of payment services. Personal data protection is also vital to the interest of consumers and content creators that use online services. Live streaming platforms often require payment for subscriptions to premium content or for donations towards the content creator. The personal particulars required for these transactions must be kept secure and not at risk of compromise. As one of the recent data protection initiatives, the Personal Data Protection (Amendment) Act 2020 (PDPA 2020) will also expand its scope beyond the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data. The new provisions are expected to commence in 2022 and will also cover the sending of unsolicited messages through email or text to promote live streaming services, which may aim to target a larger audience who are regular viewers of a content creator’s channel.

Another key area of consumer protection would be in protecting personal interests and data protection. With the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s initiative on e-financial services consumer protection, it has been put in place to protect consumers’ interest in electronic financial services through the new Payment Services Bill. This bill will provide a single regulatory framework for payment services in Singapore and will also regulate domestic and cross-border money transfers, merchant acquisition, electronic money issuance, and the dealing in and exchange of digital payment tokens.

These programs must be classified based on age appropriateness, and consumer advisory must be displayed before the purchase of the program package. To ensure that the video games meet certain standards, regulations have also been imposed by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on video game importers and retailers to restrict the availability of video games that are rated ‘Mature’ or beyond to persons aged 18 and above. This would ensure that the younger audience would not be able to easily obtain access to these games, which may have content that is not suitable for them. This also serves to protect these younger consumers from accidental purchases of video games with content that is not suitable for their age group.

Future Outlook and Potential Changes in Regulations

However, an admission by Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications, and the Arts, that “we cannot have no rules” suggests that the government’s intention is never to permit content with alternative moral values to the mainstream. This is evident from the implementation of the revised PCF and RCFA guidelines despite their failure to attract public support and the MDA’s continual rejection of gay-themed films and works by the likes of Martyn See and Tan Pin Pin. These regulations only serve to burden content providers and organizers, imposing restrictions and costs that might deter them from their cause. It is indeed a catch-22 situation; whether opportunity for expression and promotion of local culture is a positive benefit to society and the economy.

With so many current inconsistencies in regulations, most notably the absence of age and content restrictions, it is only a matter of time before the Singapore Government intervenes to revise their policy. In light of proposed amendments to the Singapore Broadcasting Act and changes in administration, culture, and attitudes, it is difficult to predict what form a revised policy will take, but the recent trend exhibited by the government shows that it will most likely result in tighter regulations and the extension of the arm of authority. This may, in fact, have a detrimental effect on the local live streaming industry.

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