Singapore has passed a Bill aimed at combating online falsehoods, despite strong criticism from industry observers and global technology companies that the legislation affords the government far-reaching powers over online communication. It has also voted to pass the Bill without implementing any of the amendments suggested as a way to reassure the public that the legislation will not be used to stifle free speech and to more clearly state the true intent of the newly passed legislation.
Singapore's Parliament voted on Wednesday evening to pass the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill after a two-day debate, with 72 Members of Parliament voting in favour and nine from opposition party Workers' Party voting against it. The three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) who proposed for several key amendments -- Anthea Ong, Irene Quay, and Walter Theseira -- chose to abstain from the vote.
Amongst their proposed changes, the officials had urged government to include a clause that stipulated key principles explaining how power could be exercised, such as codifying the aim of the legislation so it is targeted at statements that are materially false and not at opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations, or statements of experiences. They also called for the creation of an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide oversight over the use of executive powers under the Bill.
The NMPs asked for their amendments to also be put to a vote, but failed to garner any support from the country's ruling political party. The nine MPs from Workers' Party chose to abstain on this vote.
The Bill was passed amidst a heated debate that focused primarily on the definition of what constituted as false or true, with critics such as the Asia Internet Coalition saying the legislation gave the government "full discretion" and this level of "overreach" poses as a significant risk to freedom of expression in Singapore. The industry group, which comprised major global internet and technology companies, including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, had urged the government to review the Bill and believed the enforcement of the legislation would be at the expense of public debate.
Gender-equality group AWARE also released a statement noting the legislation could stymie its research and advocacy work as well as those carried out by other non-governmental organisations. AWARE's executive director Corinna Lim said: "It is AWARE's responsibility to accurately report the views and experiences of our constituents, even when they reflect negatively on government policies and diverge from official accounts. We can do that best when assured of freedom of speech and our right to offer alternative perspectives. [The act], if passed, would hamper our means of accessing and presenting valuable information to the public and I believe society would be poorer for it."
In his speech in Parliament on Wednesday, Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said similar concerns that the legislation would be used judiciously were raised in 1966, when the class licensing scheme was introduced under the Broadcasting Act. Since then, Iswaran said, industry regulator Infocomm Media Authority (IMDA) has issued 39 take-down notices or just more than one incident a year, on average.
He further noted that the main focus of the online falsehoods Bill was not individuals per se, but the larger technology platforms. "But, having said that, content often originates because of individual action and, therefore, you can't completely exempt them from the focus of this Bill," he said, noting that if a piece of online content was deemed to be false, the respective minister would decide if it was indeed false and decide if a correction or take-down order was the appropriate course of action.
New office to administer Bill
According to Iswaran, the ministry would establish a new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Office within the IMDA, which would carry out the instructions of the ministers.
The new office would support portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, types of options available, their feasibility, and effectiveness. It also would work with technology companies on the Codes of Practice and monitor compliance with the government's directions and codes.
Currently being developed, these Codes of Practice would apply to prescribed digital advertising and internet intermediaries, he said, adding that the codes aimed to prevent and combat the misuse of online accounts. Under the codes, intermediaries would be required to use "reasonable verification measures" to prevent inauthentic accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities.
In addition, the codes would provide transparency for political advertising Intermediaries, which must ensure political advertisements disclosed their source. These included election advertising and advertisements on issues of public interest or controversy in the Singapore context, including those pertaining to race or religion, the minister said.
Intermediaries also will have to de-prioritise online falsehoods so they are curbed from gaining prominence, Iswaran said.
Despite the minister's assurance that the new Bill would not be used judiciously, Workers' Party chief and Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang said on Tuesday that the legislation was the ruling party's ploy to cling onto power and establish a political monopoly.
Speaking in Parliament in Mandarin, Low said the Bill gave wide powers to ministers and enabled them to be both the player and referee in the same match.
Just as the government had raised concerns that online falsehoods could be used to manipulate opinions and influenced elections, he asked whether there would be any guarantee ministers from the ruling political party would not also manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods to win elections.
Also speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Singapore's Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam noted that the Bill gave ministers the ability to decide if a piece of online content contained falsehoods and that they could ask for a take-down or correction, but this decision could be challenged and overruled in court.
Those charged under the bill face fines of up to S$50,000 or jail terms of up to five years, or both, for first offenders, and as much as S$1 million in fines for offenders in which bots or inauthentic online accounts were used to spread the falsehoods.
Government should cement its pledge not to use the law to stifle free speech by amending key components in the draft bill, such as including a clause to clearly state the act is not targeted at opinions and parody and creating an independent council to monitor online falsehoods, urge Singapore's Nominated Members of Parliament.
Government's proposed bill to combat online falsehoods gives the administration "full discretion" on whether a piece of content is deemed true or false and this level of "overreach" poses significant risks to freedom of expression, cautions an industry group representing major internet and technology companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
If the legislation is passed, social media platforms may be ordered by government to disable accounts spreading fake news.
Twitter, Google, and Facebook faced a parliamentary committee set up to examine the impact of "deliberate online falsehoods"--with Facebook, specifically, grilled over the Cambridge Analytica breach.
Instead, the law ministry proposes the setting up of a government committee to assess the impact of "online falsehoods" in the country and how it should respond.