Donald Tsang

Public consultation should extend to internet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

Public consultations are instrumental in keeping the government in touch with community opinion about proposed laws and administrative decisions. They are especially important in Hong Kong because it does not have representative government. Given that public opinion can be fluid, the government needs to plan consultations that are widely representative. Otherwise it runs the risk of forming misleading conclusions about community sentiment.

An embarrassing example remains fresh in the memory. A seemingly uncontentious public consultation left the government unprepared for an outcry of public protest late last year about the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier to make way for reclamation. The consultation failed to tap into a new dynamic - a large, growing and predominantly young internet community capable of rapid consensus. The large number of dissenters in its midst did not participate in the consultation, but they did show up in force at the demolition site. As a result the government was made to look out of touch with shifting sentiment about heritage preservation.

Another example has arisen from the consultation on proposed new measures against internet piracy. As we report today, the response has been disappointing, given the keen interest of Hong Kong's highly computerised society. Internet users - in this case primary stakeholders - are again conspicuous by their scant participation. That this should happen within months of the previous wake-up call is a timely reminder that consultations can easily become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In this case the consultation still has more than a week to run. The government should seize the opportunity to make it more inclusive. Otherwise it risks going ahead with proposals unaware of the extent of opposition, which could prove politically troublesome.

That should not be too hard. The Star Ferry protests have already prompted a rethink of the government's consultation process. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen admitted in an interview with the South China Morning Post earlier this year that the long-standing consultation mechanism was flawed. The fact that dissenting views could emerge at a late stage reflected that. 'The process is all right, but it was not wide enough in its reach,' he said.

Stakeholders in the internet piracy issue who have not been engaged by the consultation cite the inconvenient timing and location of a public forum, and the restriction of invitations to people from the information technology, music and film industries. They might have added a failure to reach out to internet users.

In the first four months of the consultation, only 177 individuals and five groups submitted comments. Yet the proposals are controversial. They will criminalise unauthorised downloading and uploading of copyrighted material on the internet, require internet service providers to record their clients' internet activities and hand over records for prosecutions, and introduce statutory damages for infringing copyright. Meanwhile, the issues are being hotly debated on the internet, with online discussion forums receiving tens of thousands of hits and responses.

The government's proposals will impact heavily on business and daily life. Therefore it should heed calls for a more inclusive consultation, including a chance for people to air their views online.

Given Mr Tsang's admission that the process is broken and needs fixing, it is difficult for him now to justify putting it off any longer.