Singapore's proposed law against online falsehoods gives government 'full discretion' over definition

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.

The Singapore government's proposed bill to combat online falsehoods gives the ruling administration "full discretion" on whether a piece of content should be deemed true or false and this level of "overreach" will pose "significant risks" to freedom of expression. If eventually passed, the legislation will have serious implications in Singapore as well as the world, warns the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC). 

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

Responding to the Singapore government's announcement of the proposed bill, AIC's managing director Jeff Paine said in a statement that it was "deeply disappointed" over the lack of opportunities for public consultation during the drafting of the legislation, especially given its significant implications on the various stakeholders in Singapore, the region, and globally. 

The country's Law Ministry on Monday said the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill aimed to "protect society" against online false news created by "malicious actors". These could be used to divide society, spread hate, and weaken democratic institutions, it said, pointing to how online falsehoods had led to, amongst others, ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and religious outcry in Indonesia. 

Paine noted that AIC supported the Singapore government's goals of protecting social cohesion, harmony, and the integrity of institutions and political processes, but stressed that prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in combating complex issues. 

"We are concerned the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false," he said. "As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world."

He added that the group would review proposed bill and urged against enforcing the legislation at the expense of public debate. 

Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice president of public policy Simon Milner also noted that the social media company was concerned with aspects of the law that "grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users".

Speaking to local media at a briefing on the bill last week, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said ministers were in the "best position" to decide whether a piece of content was falsehood and assess its impact on public interest. Once this was determined to be so, the minister would work with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) on the action to take.

Ministers, for example, could instruct corrections to be published alongside the false content or demand that the information be removed. They also could order accounts or websites to be blocked to prevent online falsehoods from spreading. Ministers from the various domains, such as health and finance, would handle falsehoods related to their specific domain. 

The proposed bill also outlines various measures such as the "declaration of an online site" found to have repeatedly spread falsehoods in order to cut its ability to profit, without shutting it down. "The online site must have, in the preceding six months, published three different falsehoods that are the subject of active directions--meaning that each falsehood was against the public interest," the draft bill stated. 

It also defined falsehood as "false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears". 

The draft bill encompassed a layered approach to penalties, which ranged from 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. 

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