Singapore urged to make changes to proposed bill against online 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.

The Singapore government should make key amendments to its proposed law against online falsehoods to better reassure the public that it will not use the bill to stifle free speech and more clearly state the true intent of the act. As it stands, the draft Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill grants the government "far-reaching powers" over online communication which has created "significant concern". 

Such tools could be used by future governments "to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes", according to a statement jointly released on Tuesday by three Nominated Members of Parliaments (NMPs): Anthea Ong, Irene Quay, and Walter Theseira. NMPs are unelected MPs that were first introduced in 1990 as an avenue to allow citizens with no political party affiliation to participate in Singapore's parliamentary debates.

First tabled in parliament last month, the proposed bill would require online sites to remove false information or show corrections to false and misleading claims. It also would allow government to order media platforms to shutdown fake accounts or bots that spread misinformation.

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Several industry players and observers had expressed concerns the law would afford the Singapore government "full discretion" over whether a piece of content is deemed true or false. 

This level of "overreach" would pose "significant risks" to freedom of expression and the legislation, if passed, would have serious implications for Singapore as well as the world, warned the Asia Internet Coalition, which comprises of major global internet and technology companies including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

In their statement, the NMPs agreed with the intent and necessity of the bill, as it had become clear the country could no longer rely entirely on non-legislative measures to resolve problems of online falsehoods. "Bots, trolls, fake news sites, and micro-targeting exist to deliberately propagate fake news [and] studies have shown people are more likely to share fake news than real news, even if they have no ill-intent, due to confirmatory bias," they said. 

They added that falsehoods online could harm public interest, even in the absence of malevolent intent, and all stakeholders in society including individuals and global technology companies must play a role in minimising the spread of such information. They pointed to countries such as Australia, Germany, and the UK that are also exploring or already have legislation to combat false information. 

"But because online falsehoods can be so harmful, and because so many play a role in creating or transmitting such falsehoods, the bill is complex and grants the [Singapore] government far-reaching powers over online communication to fight falsehoods. This has created significant concern," they noted.

While the government publicly assured its citizens that the Bill is not intended to stifle free speech, debate, and criticism, the NMPs said the draft legislation itself did not contain such assurances that limit how it could be used. As is, the bill contains "broadly worded clauses" when defining what is deemed as a false statement and what constitutes public interest. 

In their statement, the officials set out key amendments to the proposed legislation, including a clause that stipulates key principles that state the exercise of powers, such as codifying the aim of the act so it is targeted at statements that are materially false and not at opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations, or statements of experiences. 

This, they noted, would cement the explicit assurances from the Singapore government into the Bill itself. Pointing to concerns from researchers on how the potential legislation would impact research based on contentious facts, they said the Bill should be applied with caution to avoid stifling well-informed, free, and critical speech. 

"[The key principles] set out that the act should be used in a proportionate way, so the least restrictive tools such as corrections are used first, with the most restrictive take-downs used only if necessary," they explained, adding that these would further safeguard the role of research since research often contested established facts or ideas in order to advance knowledge. 

The NMPs also called for the inclusion of requirements to expedite the appeals process as well as the creation of an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide oversight on the use of executive powers under the Bill. Council members should be appointed by a select committee of Parliament, they said.

In addition, they called for the inclusion of requirements to ensure directions issued under the act were publicly justified. 

"We believe these amendments preserve the ability of the executive to act against online falsehoods in the public interest, while ensuring such decisions are subject to good governance," the NMPs said, noting the amendments would facilitate the Singapore government's assurance that ministers exercising their powers under the Bill would be accountable to Parliament and the public. 

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