Singapore isn’t waiting for Facebook to crack down on fake news

Bill also intends to impose criminal sanctions including fines of up to RM3m and 10 years in prison


SINGAPORE • Singapore plans to introduce tough new laws to hold online outlets accountable for the spread of fake news, joining countries around the world in putting pressure on companies like Facebook Inc to address the issue.

The new measures will require online sites to show corrections to false or misleading claims and take down falsehoods, according to a bill put forward in Parliament on Monday by the government.

Account restriction directions can be issued to a platform to disable a fake account or bot that spreads a falsehood undermining the public interest, the government said in Parliament. These directions can be appealed in a court.

The bill also intends to impose criminal sanctions — including fines of up to S$1 million (RM3.02 million) and 10 years in prison — against those who spread an online falsehood with intent to prejudice the public interest, and those who make a bot to spread an online falsehood.

The sanctions will also apply to anyone providing services for the purpose of spreading falsehoods in return for a reward.

“There are a lot of falsehoods being propagated,” Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam told reporters on Monday. “If they are not dealt with, then free speech itself will be undermined, democracy will be undermined, public institutions will be undermined.”

The government’s move comes just days after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called for new global regulations for everything from hate speech online to privacy and data protection. While Facebook asked for regulators around the world to agree on standards for online content, governments like Singapore see the issue as serious enough that they need to take more immediate action.

Far-Reaching Legislation
Facebook, Google and an industry group representing Internet and technology giants expressed concern over the Singapore proposal.

Facebook is 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”, said Simon Milner, Facebook’s VP for public policy in Asia Pacific. “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.”

Misinformation is a significant challenge, and one that Google is working hard to address, said Google spokesman Chris Brummitt.

“We will study the bill to determine our next steps, and urge the government to allow for a full and transparent public consultation on the proposed legislation,” he said.

The Asia Internet Coalition, whose members include Facebook, Google and Apple Inc, said it was “deeply disappointed” by the lack of public consultation during the drafting process of the bill.

“We are also concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false,” Jeff Paine, MD at the Asia Internet Coalition said in a statement.

“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 ramification both in Singapore and around the world.”

Global Concerns
Singapore will be joining countries like France and Germany in adopting legislation to counter fake news and apply regulatory oversight over digital platforms for the content they carry.

It’s part of an Asia Pacific wide crackdown on the malicious use of online media.

Australia said on Saturday it will adopt tough new laws to prevent social platforms from being “weaponised” by terrorists who may use them to live-stream violent crimes, such as the March 15 attack on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

In India — which is set to begin its federal election on April 11 — Facebook announced it had enlisted five new organisations to help with fact-checking that will review news stories on the platform and rate their accuracy.

In his post online over the weekend, Zuckerberg said the company is seeking regulations that would set baselines for prohibited content and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a minimum. “From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: Harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability,” he wrote.

The Singapore Parliament established a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods — Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures in January last year.

There’s already several laws in place to prevent the incitement of racial and religious discord in Singapore, as well as other laws covering libel and issues considered a threat to national security. — Bloomberg