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Singapore proposes fines up to $1 million for social networks that don’t act swiftly against fake news

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill tabled in the Singapore Parliament yesterday proves that the government has taken a hard line when it comes to individual sites as well as social networks that aid in the spread of what is deemed to be “fake news” with fines of up to $1 million.

Worryingly for social networking sites, a lot of the provisions, if followed in letter and spirit, could materially affect the way they function.

For instance, social media sites will be expected to disable accounts that spread online falsehoods. This has long been a bone of contention between sites like Facebook and the government.

The sites are expected to carry official corrections of online falsehoods already printed. The onus of carrying these corrections also extends to individuals or groups with a large following on social networks, who may have shared a false report in the first place.

In more extreme cases, the falsehoods will have to be taken offline.

The Bill also goes into details of punishments for repeat offenders and for social networking sites that do not heed its directives.

Social networking sites that do not swiftly comply with takedown requests or display corrections could be fined as much as $1 million.

Websites that host inflammatory content that are guilty of three infractions in six months could find “their ability to profit” affected.

This provision deals with owners of such sites being unable to profit from ad revenue or receive any other form of financial assistance.

The government’s recent run-ins with independently run site The States Times Review which later morphed into the Singapore Herald appear to have informed a lot of the decisions in the bill.

For instance, last November, States Times Review was officially blocked for allegedly publishing fake news. But the site had a page on Facebook and was thus able to circumvent the block.

Reacting to Facebook’s decision to keep an offending post up in spite of a request for it to be taken down, Singapore’s Ministry of Law issued a statement that said: “Facebook has declined to take down a post that is clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore, using falsehoods. This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods.” It added: “Facebook cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.”

The provisions have provoked concerned reactions from multiple quarters.

Speaking to Mumbrella, Splice Media co-founder and CEO Alan Soon said: “Singapore’s curbs on free speech aren’t new – the government has always had the legal instruments it needs to silence its critics. The difference here is the expedited process – ministers are able to order takedowns, a function that was previously handled through court orders. The other big change is the takedown-first-and-appeal-later process which deters challenges.

“The greatest threat to Singapore’s national security isn’t in the voices of the government’s critics – it is in the ability of foreign governments and organised non-state actors to manipulate social platforms. This is the government’s primary concern.

“This outcome reflects a chronic lack of confidence in Big Tech’s ability to articulate, enforce and address its shortcomings in content moderation.

“Ultimately, all of this also highlights the need of strong, credible and authoritative media in Singapore. If Singaporeans don’t trust or find relevance in local media, we’ll never find a way forward in curbing misinformation.”

Reacting to the provisions, the Asia Internet Coalition – which includes companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon among others – issued a statement attributed to its managing director Jeff Paine, which said: “The Asia Internet Coalition (“AIC”) supports the Singapore Government’s goals of protecting social cohesion, harmony, and the integrity of institutions and political processes.

“However, we are deeply disappointed by the lack of meaningful opportunities for public consultation during the drafting process of this bill, given the significant implications it could have for diverse stakeholders, including industry, media and civil society, in Singapore, the region and internationally.

“We reiterate our position, which echoes that of many experts around the world, that prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue.

“We are also concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false. 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.

“AIC will be studying the bill in the coming days. We remain committed to working closely with the Government and other stakeholders to tackle misinformation, and hope that the enforcement of this legislation will not be at the expense of the benefits that public debate and exchange of ideas can bring.”

Facebook which recently started a centre in Singapore to focus on ‘election integrity’ in the region, also reacted to this development. Facebook’s vice president of public policy Simon Milner said: “We appreciate the government’s close consultation on this important issue, and share the same commitment to reduce the spread of deliberate online falsehoods.

“We support regulation that strikes the right balance between reducing harm while protecting people’s rights to meaningful speech. In fact, the draft legislation already reflects a number of investments we have made to combat false news and disrupt attempts to manipulate civic discourse.

“This work includes identifying and disrupting coordinated inauthentic behavior, introducing more political ads transparency, removing fake accounts and introducing digital literacy programs.

“We are, however, 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.

“Giving people a place to express themselves freely and safely is important to us and we have a responsibility to handle any government request to remove alleged misinformation carefully and thoughtfully. We will continue to work with the government, industry and our own community on this important issue.”

A spokesperson for Twitter said: “Twitter recognises the importance of the Select Committee’s work on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, and we have appreciated the opportunity to engage with the Singapore Government throughout this process. This is the first time that we have seen the law in its entirety and our teams are still reviewing to assess its implications.”

When approached for a comment, a spokesperson for Mediacorp said: “This is a significant piece of legislation that needs to be studied further to understand the details and their implications.”

The legislations come against the backdrop of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg publishing an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling for, among other things, “a more active role for governments and regulators”.

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