On April 1st, 2019, the Singapore Government tabled a new law to address the dissemination of “fake news”. The proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (the “Bill” ) would enable governmental authorities to order the removal of online content, and to impose hefty fines for non-compliance. As the leading technology hub in South-East Asia with a 5.6 million strong multi-racial and multi-religious population, Singapore has proactively sought to palliate its social-political vulnerabilities to deliberate online falsehood since it established a Select Committee on Online Falsehood back in January 11, 2018. As of date, the additional platform accountability to be created by this Bill is not unchallenged by tech giants and human rights advocates – adding another episode to the global tug-of-war between regulating online content and safeguarding freedom of speech.
As additional context, it is worth noting that the deleterious effects of fake news have a more violent connotation in South-East Asia. There have been several instances in which fake news spread via social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, instigated mob violence with human casualties – namely the January 2017 and July 2018 incidents in India. This differs with the fake news we are used in hearing about in Western media, which often shares a spotlight with accountable democracy and informed voting. As unifying thread, fake news is a global affliction for states, companies, and individuals alike.
KEY FEATURES – THE PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOOD AND MANIPULATION BILL
SCOPE OF APPLICATION
The proposed Bill is colloquially referred to as targeting “fake news”, but the exact wording used by this new law is “false statements of fact”. In short, the law will allow for the government ministers to take action when (i) there is a false statement of fact being communicated to a Singaporean end-user, and (ii) it would be in the public interest to do so. The proposed Bill prohibits any person from communicating a false statement of fact to one or more end-users in Singapore through the Internet, the press, or SMS.
A “false statement of fact” is largely defined as “one that is false or misleading whether wholly or in part and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”. According to Singapore’s Law Minister K. Shanmugam, this definition would exclude “opinions, criticisms, satire or parody”.
The Minister will have the power to issue various orders (each detailed in the next section) if there is a public interest reasonin doing so. This would include situations where there isa likelyprejudice to the security of Singapore, public health or safety, or the relations of Singapore with other countries; or in instances where the falsehood could influence the outcome of an election, incite feelings of enmity or ill-will between different groups of persons, or diminish public confidence in the performance of the Government. The measures provided under this law could be taken against private individuals as well as “Internet Intermediaries” referring to internet providers, and “Providers of Mass Media Services” meaning all social media platforms.
ORDERS AND OTHER MEASURES
Singapore’s anti-fake news Bill will give its government ministers power to issue a variety of directions to stop the spreading of False Statement of Facts:
Correction Directions [Clause 11 & 21] – Alongside an Access Blocking Order, the Minister could also issue an order directing the issuance of a correction notice within Singapore. There are three types of correction directions under the Bill: Correction Directions (for individuals), Targeted Correction Order (for Internet Intermediaries), General Correction Directions ( for Newspaper and Printing Presses Act permit holder). A correction notice would have to state which fact is false, where it can be found, and, if possible, included at the online location next to every false statement of fact.
Stop Communication Direction [Clause 12] – This order would direct any website or online platform to take down a false statement of fact, including “a substantially similar statement.” Indeed, the proposed Bill provides that any person may be ordered to “stop communicating” a false statement of fact, which means “(if necessary) the removal of the statement from the online location.”
Account Restriction Direction [Clause 40] – This order would direct an Internet intermediary to disable “Inauthentic Online Accounts” and bots used to spread false information. The Internet intermediary would also have to stop all potential interactions between the person controlling the fake account and Singaporean users.
Disabling Access Direction & Access Blocking Order [Clause 22 & 43] – This order would direct an Internet services access provider or a mass media service provider to disable the access to an online site or location where False Statement of Facts are being communicated.
Furthermore, the Bill also provides for the instauration of a binding “Code of Practice” for tech companies, and a “Declaration of Online Location” that lists online locations found to have communicated three or more false statement of facts.
The above measures will have an extra-territorial application. Even a company without physical presence in Singapore may have to comply with an order or the “Code of Practice” if it publishes content accessible to Singaporean netizens online.
POTENTIAL FINES AND EMPRISONMENT
Possible penalties will include monetary fines and imprisonment terms. For individuals who communicate falsehoods online, they may face a fine of up to SG$50,000 (USD$37,000) or 5-year imprisonment. If the false statement of fact is communicated using a false account or a bot, the fine is increased to SG$100,000 (USD$74,000) or a potential 10-year imprisonment. Companies may be liable for hefty fines of up to SG$1 million (USD$740,000) for failure to comply with the Bill.
LINGERING CONCERNS AND OPPOSITION – FREEDOM OF SPEECH
In light of this new Bill, April’s fool of 2019 was less than comical for tech giants given the already tense dynamic between the Singaporean Government and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Tech giants consider this new legislation to be an assault to free speech. Simon Milner, Facebook’s VP of public policy in Asia, expressed concerns with the broad powers granted to the Singapore executive branch to compel content removal deemed to be false.The Humans Right Watchhave also issued their disapproval of Singapore’s proposed Bill, finding it to be “sweepingly broad” as it provides “no guidance on how the minister will make a determination whether a statement is true or false or what standards are to be used in doing so.” The primary human rights concerns are the potential for abuse and censorship. Singaporean courts would ultimately be called to decide what constitutes “fake news”, but the burden is placed on the citizen, or individual reporter, to bring and financially sustain a lawsuit against the Government – such suitsbeing common already in Singapore.
OTHER ANTI-FAKE NEWS LAWS AROUND THE WORLD
Singapore is not the first country to adopt laws to regulate online content and seek to implement solutions to prevent misinformation. Governments around the world have been legislatively active to address the dissemination of fake news – not without controversy – most notably:
Belarus: On June 14, 2018, Belarus passed amendments to its media lawsto enable the prosecution of individuals suspected of spreading false information.
France: On November 20, 2018, a law against the manipulation of information – “la loi ordinaire relative à la lutte contre la manipulation de l’information”- was approved on its second reading. This law targets the rapid dissemination of fake news through digital tools.
Germany: Passed in June 2017 and enforceable since January 2018, The Network Enforcement Act is now effective and requires “social networks to promptly remove illegal content, including falsehoods that are criminal in nature.”
Kenya: On May 16, 2018, Kenya enacted the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Lawthat enables the prosecution of people who spread false information, allowing for an imposition of a fine up to $50,000 or a two-year prison term.
Since Canada has yet to adopt a specific legislation against the dissemination of online falsehoods, similar purposed legislation adopted by other countries may serve as a comparative inspiration. For online content publishers and social media platforms, the growing challenge is the lack of uniformity in both the definition for “fake news” and the corrective counter-actions required by each country. As actors, observers, and commentators through black mirrors, can the netizens of the world hold onto their right to construct their own truths and, now, define their own falsehood?