15 May 2019

Singapore introduces legislation to combat online falsehoods

The Singapore Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill into law on 8 May 2019.

Upon assent by the President of Singapore, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (the "Act") will empower the Singapore Government to take action against the electronic communication by individuals and internet intermediaries of false statements of fact and prevent the use of online accounts for such communication.

Where a false statement of fact is published online, the Act empowers Government Ministers to direct the Competent Authority (a statutory board or a government officer) to issue a Correction Notice Direction or a Stop Communication Direction (collectively "Part 3 Directions") to the person who communicated the false statement of fact in Singapore and a Correction Direction or a Disabling Direction (collectively "Part 4 Directions") to the internet intermediary that provided the service through which the false statement of fact was communicated in Singapore.

However, it is not every false statement of fact that is published online that the Government will take issue with. The Government will only respond to those false statements of fact that have public interest consequences.

The Act specifically states that 2 conditions must be present in order for the Minister to exercise the powers given to him under the Act; namely:

  • There must have been a false statement of fact that has been communicated online in Singapore; and
  • It is in the public interest for the Government to intervene and take action.

There have been concerns over what is a false statement of fact and why should the Government and not the Courts be the arbiter of what constitutes falsehoods.

The Government has clarified that statements that would be caught under this Act are statements that contain false or misleading information. The Act does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody.

Secondly, the communication of the false statement of fact must have public interest consequences in order for the Minister to act. "Public interest" is defined in the Act to include:

  • The security of Singapore;
  • The protection of public health or public safety;
  • Singapore's relations with other countries;
  • The influence of the outcome of a general election or an election to the office of President, or a referendum;
  • Inciting feelings of hatred or ill-will between different group of persons; and
  • Diminution of public confidence in public institutions.

When these 2 conditions are met, the Minister may instruct the Competent Authority to issue a Part 3 Direction to the individual or a Part 4 Direction to the internet intermediary.

In the Parliamentary debate, the Minister of Law explained that in most instances, the Minister will not call for an outright removal of the false statement, but will require the sites to post links to where "correct facts" can be found, alongside the post with false statement of facts. In this way, readers can discern for themselves the truth of the matter.

If the individual or internet intermediary does not agree with the direction given by the Minister, he can apply to the Minister to vary or cancel the direction. If the Minister refuses the application, the individual or the internet intermediary can then file an appeal to the High Court.

The Minister of Law explained that the Government decided to give the powers to the Ministers instead of the Courts to deal with online falsehood because online falsehood needs to be dealt with swiftly as online posts can go viral very quickly. This approach strikes a balance between the need to act swiftly and decisively and subjects the direction to legal challenge and scrutiny by the Courts.

Tech companies have responded to say that they will work with the Singapore Government on its implementation of the Act despite their concerns over the ambit of the Act. One concern that they have is that the Act grants broad powers to the Singapore Government to order the removal of content deemed to be false and the requirement to publish Government notifications to their users. They are also concerned that the new law will create an environment of self-censorship and clamp down on legitimate criticism of the Government.

Facebook said that it shares the Singapore Government's commitment to reduce the spread of deliberate online falsehoods, but it hopes that the Singapore Government will take a "proportionate and measured approach in practice".

The Government has given assurance that the law will be used in a targeted manner. It would be up to the public and the Courts to hold the Government accountable and ensure that it uses the law to combat falsehoods that undermine public interest and not as a political tool to wield power and stifle criticisms against the government.

The Government is also working with the tech companies to develop a code of practice. The intention is that with a code of practice, tech companies will implement systems and processes that can deal with online falsehoods at source and remove fake accounts so that there would be fewer occasions where the Government would need to issue Part 4 Directions to internet intermediaries downstream.

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