Facebook 'deeply concerned' about Singapore directive to block access

Singapore government's decision to block access to a Facebook page 'contradicts' its previous claim that the legislation would not be used as a censorship tool, says the social network.

Facebook has called out the Singapore government for its use of the country's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to block access to a page on the social networking platform. The move goes against an earlier pledge that the legislation would not be used to censor voices, says the US internet giant. 

Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on Monday instructed Facebook to block access to the States Times Review (STR) page after the latter repeatedly refused to comply with previous directives issued under POFMA. The "disabling" order, outlined under Section 34 of the Act, requires Facebook to disable access for local users. 

The order came two days after the ministry served a directive for the STR page on Facebook to be tagged as a "Declared Online Location" (DOL). This required the author of the page, Alex Tan, to publish a notice on the page stating it had "a history of communicating falsehoods". The order, which was to take effect from February 16, was not complied with, prompting the directive for Facebook to block access to the page.

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The page is no longer accessible in Singapore. 

The STR had said on its Facebook page that it was "turning to YouTube for publication", due to a "censorship ban" in the country on its website.

In response to ZDNet's queries, a company spokesperson on Tuesday confirmed Facebook was "legally compelled" to restrict access to the page, but expressed concerns about the use of POFMA to quash freedom of speech. 

The spokesperson said: "We believe orders like this are disproportionate and contradict the government's claim that POFMA would not be used as a censorship tool. We've repeatedly highlighted this law's potential for overreach and we're deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore."

In defending the decision to issue the disabling order against the STR page, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said the government needed to "act swiftly" against falsehoods amidst the coronavirus outbreak. "Because if we don't, then these falsehoods can cause anxiety, fear, and even panic," the minister said Tuesday during a media doorstop. 

When the STR did not comply with any POFMA directives, the government then issued a further direction -- the disabling access order -- to prevent Singaporeans from accessing the site, Iswaran said.

According to the MCI, a February 13 post on the STR page contained several inaccurate information about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Singapore, including claims that the Singapore government was unable to trace the source of infection for any patients infected with with virus, that the government was the only nation instructing the public not to wear a mask, and that seven countries had banned travel to the city-state. 

The POFMA was passed last May, following a brief public debate, and came into effect on October 2 along with details on how appeals against directives could be made. The Bill had passed despite strong criticism that it gave the government far-reaching powers over online communication and would be used to stifle free speech as well as quell political opponents.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) had warned that the Act gave the ruling administration "full discretion" on whether a piece of content was deemed true or false and this level of "overreach" would pose "significant risks" to freedom of expression. The AIC then cautioned that POFMA would have "serious implications" in Singapore as well as the rest of the world.

Founded in 2010, the industry group comprises of major global internet and technology companies, including founding members Google and Yahoo as well as other members Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. 

Netflix earlier this month also revealed that Singapore accounted for five of nine takedown requests it received from governments worldwide since it began operations 23 years ago. In 2018 alone, the US media streaming site acceded to the Singapore government's takedown demands regarding three titles: Cooking on HighThe Legend of 420, and Disjointed from the service in Singapore only. The three films discussed the use of cannabis or marijuana, which is illegal in Singapore. 

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