S’pore passes ‘fake news’ bill

By BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE • Singapore’s lawmakers passed a bill to combat “fake news” after two days of debate about who gets to define what’s true and false.

Under the new bill, it will be government ministers who make that call. Singapore’s Parliament passed the bill in a vote of 72 to nine late on Wednesday night, the Straits Times reported.

The bill, which is expected to become law later this year, has raised questions in a city-state where an openness to international business is key to the country’s viability.

“Free speech should not be affected by this bill,” Law Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament this week.

“We are talking here about falsehoods, we are talking about bots, we are talking about trolls, we are talking about fake accounts and so on.”

It is just one of many nations grappling with how to respond to propaganda and false information online.

Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc unit Google LLC — which have large offices in Singapore, along with other social media companies — have come under pressure to address lies spread on their platforms.

Misinformation is a challenging issue that Google is working hard to address, said Singapore-based Google spokesman Chris Brummitt.

“The intensity of the debate over the last few weeks has highlighted the need for a full and transparent public consultation,” Brummitt said in a statement yesterday.

“We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem. How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policymakers on this process.”

Facebook said it hopes that reassuring ministerial statements lead to a proportionate and measured approach in practice.

“We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and to push a government notification to users,” Simon Milner, its VP of public policy for Asia Pacific, said in a statement.

He said Facebook is already committed to reducing the spread of misinformation in Singapore and elsewhere, and recently introduced third-party fact-checking in the city-state.

Singapore’s solution to misinformation will be to treat truth itself as a form of infrastructure.

In a nation that prides itself on the world’s top-ranked airport and a spotless subway system, that will mean strict government oversight.

The public infrastructure of truth itself provides society with a shared reality, Shanmugam said this week, arguing that public discourse can only take place when there is free and responsible speech.

Without it, Shanmugam added, the political system on the island would malfunction.

“When an infrastructure of fact is damaged, the ability of countries to face challenges is weakened,” he said.

Under the proposed law, government ministers would be able to order a correction to be carried alongside a false or misleading claim, and material not in the public interest to be taken down.

If someone disagreed, they can take their case to the courts.

Though there would be a defined appeals process — and the government stressed it would be quick and cheap to take your case to the courts — compliance would be required before appeal. — Bloomberg