By Kevin Lim and Jeremy Wagstaff
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's move to tighten regulation of news web sites, already under fire from bloggers and human rights groups, has attracted criticism from an unexpected quarter - large Internet firms with a big presence in the city-state which say the new rules will hurt the industry.
Web giants Facebook Inc, eBay Inc, Google Inc and Yahoo! Inc have said the revised rules "have negatively impacted Singapore's global image as an open and business-friendly country".
The comments, made in a letter to the Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, by the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry body, are the first sign that Singapore's success in wooing major players is not assured.
Google, eBay, Facebook and Yahoo all have a major presence in the city-state.
Google said separately it was concerned about the long-term implications of the regulation - especially for local Internet entrepreneurs who it said now faced greater uncertainty and legal risk.
Minister Yaacob, however, told parliament on Monday that his ministry intended to move ahead with the legislation, despite calls from lawmakers to delay its implementation, and dismissed some of the concerns raised.
"The overall law is not meant to force sites to close down by causing them financial difficulties. MDA have already indicated and replied earlier that they will be prepared to exercise flexibility where warranted should a site have genuine difficulties putting up a bond," he said.
In late May, the Media Development Authority (MDA) said websites that regularly report on Singapore would have to be licensed and listed 10 news sites that would be affected, based on criteria such as having 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month.
Websites affected by the new licensing regime would have to put up a S$50,000 ($39,300) performance bond as well as take down within 24 hours any story that authorities deemed objectionable.
"Singapore aims to be the future, but this regulation looks a lot like the past," Google's Ann Lavin, director of public policy and government affairs, Southeast Asia, told Reuters.
MDA had said the changes would make the rules governing news websites more consistent with those affecting newspapers and other traditional media platforms. It also said there was no change in its content standards, a point reiterated by Yaacob.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) was set up in 2011 by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay to lobby for free and open access to the Internet and promote e-commerce.
The Internet and related industries have become an important sector for Singapore, with revenues last year growing 23 percent to S$103 billion ($81 billion). The sector employs more than 144,000 people out of the city-state's 3.2 million workforce, according to government data.
"When you look at other countries in the region, it's hard to see anyone immediately breathing down the neck of Singapore and Hong Kong," said John Ure, executive director of AIC. "But things can change. Five to 10 years is not a long time."
Ure said the coalition's members had been unnerved by the announcement coming "out of the blue" at a time when it had been holding discussions with the Singapore government on several Internet-related issues.
The regulations, he said, "muddied the waters" and that "anything that is seen to be a hindrance to the free flow of content and data" was of concern to his members.
Singapore has attracted major Internet companies in part because of its commitment to what it has called a "light touch" when it comes to policing the Web.
Yahoo's popular Singapore news site was the only foreign website among the 10 listed by the MDA, but critics fear the rules could be extended to cover other websites, including those critical of the government.
A Yahoo spokesman said it had no official comment on the regulation but that the AIC's position was "broadly consistent with ours".
"MONSTERS UNDER THE BED"
Opposition lawmaker Lina Chiam told parliament there were still many unanswered questions about the new MDA regulations despite recent attempts at clarification.
"The definition of news sites under the regulations, as they stand, is so arbitrary, and can encompass any website posting at least one news-related article in a week," she said.
"That is why Singaporeans continue to believe that the regulations had been crafted to censor blogs, especially those that discuss politics."
Lobby group Reporters Without Borders, in its latest report, ranked Singapore 149th globally in terms of press freedom, down 14 places from 2012 and below many of its neighbors.
In 2011, the city-state's tiny opposition made big gains against the long-ruling People's Action Party in a parliamentary election, partly by using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach voters.
Rights groups have joined local bloggers in criticizing the move. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said that major Internet companies adding their voice should give Singapore serious pause about its approach.
The government, "like a little boy in a dark bedroom, imagines that every bump in the night means there are monsters under the bed ready to pounce on Singapore's much vaunted social stability", he said.
($1 = 1.2715 Singapore dollars)
(Reporting By Jeremy Wagstaff, Kevin Lim and John O'Callaghan; Editing by Alex Richardson and Ron Popeski)