Singapore online falsehoods law kicks in with details on appeals process

Passed in May 2019 after a brief debate, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will come into effect from October 2 onwards. It includes an appeals process that costs SG$200 to file and could be heard in the High Court within nine days.

Singapore's legislation for combating online falsehoods has come into effect just months after it was briefly debated in May this year, when discussions were centred on the appeals process and fears that the laws would extend the government's power beyond online communications. The now-live Act will provide, among others features, an appeals process that will allow people to challenge a minister's decision -- over what constitutes as a falsehood -- at the cost of SG$200, with the challenge to be heard at the High Court within nine days of its application being made. 

These details and others were announced through a series of notices published Wednesday on the electronic Government Gazette, with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) officially kicking in on the same day (2 October 2019).  

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The legislation has been mooted as a way to "protect society" against online false news created by "malicious actors", with the Law Ministry saying that false news could be used to divide society, spread hate, and weaken democratic institutions.

The government, however, has been urged to make key amendments to the laws to better reassure the public that it would not be used to stifle free speech. Several pundits have argued that the Act provides the government with "far-reaching powers" over online communications. Industry players and observers, meanwhile, have also expressed concerns that the law would afford the Singapore government "full discretion" over whether a piece of content is deemed true or false. 

Under POFMA, two criteria requirements must be met for the laws to apply: there must be a false statement of fact and it must be in the public interest to act. 

The criteria does not cover criticisms, satire or parody, and opinions. Comments on falsehoods also are excluded, though, the Law Ministry has cautioned that "care" should be exercised to "avoid repeating" falsehoods. The ministry has also made assurances that the Act will not be used to punish people for sharing falsehoods "in ignorance [and] good faith".

Under the new legislation, Singaporean ministers will have the authority to decide whether to act against a false statement, as well as the ability to instruct a falsehood to be taken down or corrected. 

The Act states that ministers must issue a notice of their decision on an application to "vary or cancel" a directive within two working days. The courts would then have six working days to schedule a hearing date if an appeal against a minister's decision has been filed. This means an appeal of a minister's decision could be heard at the High Court within nine days of its filing. 

It will cost SG$200 to submit an appeal and the applicant will bear no charges for the first three days of a court hearing. 

POFMA also lists companies that will be subject to the Act, including internet intermediaries, digital advertising intermediaries, and media companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and Baidu. These organisations must adhere to the stated codes of practice so their platforms cannot be used to spread falsehoods, according to the Act. 

Some of the companies have been given temporary exemptions from the law, having been given additional time to implement "the necessary arrangements and technological measures" so they can comply with the Act. These include the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and WeChat. 

POFMA outlines three kinds of offences: spreading falsehoods that will, or are likely, to harm public interest despite knowing they are false; making a bot with the intent of using it to spread falsehoods; and providing services to facilitate the distribution of falsehoods in return for rewards. 

Offenders will face up to three or five years' imprisonment, a SG$30,000 or SG$50,000 fine, or both. If bots or inauthentic accounts are used to amplify falsehoods, the potential penalties that can be applied are doubled. 

Offending internet intermediaries, meanwhile, can face up to SG$1 million fine, and will also receive a daily SG$100,000 fine for each day they continue to breach the Act after conviction.

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