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Explained: How Singapore law proposes to crack down on ‘false’ online posts

What led to the government taking this step, Singapore's Law Ministry said in a statement, is the belief that false statements made online have the potential to divide society, spread hate and weaken democratic institutions.

Rights groups argue that the law imposes limitations on free speech.

On Wednesday, Singapore notified the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, which will enable the government to order social media websites to take down posts deemed to be false. This Bill had been tabled in April, passed by Parliament on May 8 and got the President’s assent on June 3. The law has faced criticism from technology companies and rights groups. A Reuters report in May quoted Google as saying, “We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem”. Rights groups argue that the law imposes limitations on free speech.

Why the new law

What led to the government taking this step, Singapore’s Law Ministry said in a statement, is the belief that false statements made online have the potential to divide society, spread hate and weaken democratic institutions. The statement cited the examples of falsehoods spread online that incited hate or fear leading to violence, or false rumours about child kidnappers that led to violent incidents in India and elsewhere. The Act’s stated aims are to prevent the “communication of false statements of fact in Singapore and to enable measures to be taken to counteract the effects of such communication”; to suppress the “financing and promotion of false statements of fact”, and to enable measures such that politically motivated paid content is disclosed.

Communication & falsehood

Under this Act, communication is defined as a statement or material that is made available to at least one end-user by use of the Internet or on it, via an MMS or SMS. The Act’s definition of a falsehood is limited to a statement of fact and does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody. As examples, the Ministry cites “Bank has lost $20 billion” as a statement of fact as opposed to the opinion that “Singapore’s institutions and policies are often elitist”. Any minister from the government has the authority to instruct the “Competent Authority” if he believes a false statement of fact has been communicated in Singapore or if he believes it is in the public interest to issue a direction against the statement. The minister will need to explain why the statement is false. Competent Authority refers to a statutory body or the holder of any service in the government or a statutory board that will be appointed by the minister for the purposes of the Act.

Action to be taken

In a statement that is believed false, a direction will be issued to the individual or Internet services. In most of the cases, corrections will be the primary response. Based on the premise that people who see online falsehoods are not likely to see the correction, the falsehoods will not be removed and corrections will need to be put up alongside them by online platforms. In some cases, online platforms may also be required to ensure that people who previously saw the falsehood see the correction. This is referred to as the “Targeted Correction Direction” under which the online platforms have to furnish a notice declaring the correction to all the end-users of the platform. In other cases the Internet service may have to disable access to the material that is considered to be false. Additionally, under this law profits of online platforms that repeatedly spread falsehoods can be cut. A set of binding “Codes of Practice” for technology companies covering three areas — inauthentic online accounts and bots, digital advertising transparency and de-prioritising falsehoods — will be applied to “digital advertising intermediaries” or Internet intermediaries”.

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The penalties

Once a minister identifies a falsehood, the individual is issued a “Stop Communication Direction” to be complied with within a specified time period. Only when the falsehood is spread with malicious intent do criminal sanctions apply. If found guilty of communicating statements believed to be false to the extent that such a statement is likely to jeopardise the security of the country, influence election outcomes, incite feelings of enmity or hatred etc, he/she will be liable to pay a fine of $50,000 or be imprisoned for not more than five years or both. Individuals have the option of appeal in the High Court unless they have not already made an application to the minister, which has either been wholly or partly refused by him. According to the Ministry of Law, this law will not affect most average citizens. “For most people, the right response is instead education and fact-checking,” it says.

First published on: 03-10-2019 at 08:47:58 pm
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