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Singapore’s Dangerous Response to Combating Misinformation Online

· April 25, 2019

Countries are increasingly considering policy responses to address the spread of misinformation online (some are outlined by the Poynter Institute here).  Without adequate safeguards and clearly defined rules, however, legislative solutions will do little to maintain the trust users place in online content.  This post focuses on one recent example: Singapore’s flawed legislative proposals introduced earlier this month, which aim to protect its citizens from “online falsehoods and manipulation” and “harassment” but would result in government overreach that stifles the economic and creative potential of the web.  

Singapore studied the problem of misinformation over the past year, holding public hearings to examine the motivations and consequences of misinformation in Singapore, and ultimately released a comprehensive report on its findings that further action was needed.  

As a result, draft legislation was recently introduced in the Singaporean Parliament, which would take unprecedented steps to regulate content online.  The proposed bills – Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill and Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill – would require online services to remove content or carry ‘corrections’ on their platforms in response to claims from the government or from individuals that content is false or misleading.  

These proposals place too much power to determine falsehoods in the hands of the government without adequate and timely oversight processes, particularly by the judiciary.  Instead of enhancing trust online, they could spread more misinformation while restricting platforms’ ability to continue to address misinformation issues.

Proposal to Grant Government Power of Correction

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (text here) would allow officials to order a “Targeted Correction Direction” to an online intermediary located anywhere in the world if particular Singapore government officials determine that (1) a statement is false and that (2) it would be in the ‘public interest’ to issue a correction (Part 4 of text).  In certain cases, the intermediary may also be directed to block or disable access to the content.

Under the bill, “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears” (emphasis added).  However, it is not clear what the process is for government officials to determine whether a statement or posted content is false under this standard and whether it is a transparent process.  It is further not clear what, if any, evidence the government would need to proffer in support of its assertion that a given piece of content is false.

“Public interest” is also broadly defined in the text to include not only matters related to national security, public health, and election integrity, but also “in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries” and to “prevent diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power” by the government or its agents.

Critics have characterized the bill as a dangerous overreach of government to control online speech and a threat to civil liberties.  It designates the Government of Singapore the “arbiter of what anyone can say about Singapore anywhere in the world”, as argued by Human Rights Watch.  According to the N.Y. Times, civil liberties defenders fear that the new powers granted to executive authorities could be used to disadvantage political opponents.  The legislation also places these online platforms in the role of ‘broadcaster’ and ignores their intermediary status as they would now be required to carry the government’s message about certain content.

Another concerning aspect of the bill is directed at “digital advertising intermediaries” regarding paid content on their platforms (Part 7 of text).  The bill directs officials to issue “codes of practice” regarding intermediaries’ responsibilities with respect to paid content, including when the content is “directed towards a political end”.  Per the text, this includes not only campaign and election ads, but also content that will “influence, or [] seek to influence, public opinion on a matter which in Singapore is a matter of public interest or public controversy.”  Recent government attempts to offer ‘clarity’ on the text have instead highlighted how difficult the law would be to enforce.

This grant of broad powers lacks important procedural safeguards.  For example, under the bill, an individual would have to challenge the government in court to prove that the content they posted was true or lawful.  Faced with either challenging speech or just not speaking further, individuals will likely choose the latter. For affected intermediaries, the appeal process is unclear.

The costs of non-compliance are extensive.  In addition to significant fines, the officials can order regulated services to block access to the services and can order social media platforms to disable access to specific links or pages.  

Civil society representatives and activists raised concerns at a public hearing last year, arguing that the government was already equipped to respond to misinformation with existing powers and instead recommending media literacy efforts.  Unfortunately, these recommendations ultimately appear to have been disregarded.

More importantly, these developments are at odds with the country’s desire to be a tech hub for Asia.  Rather than taking steps to consult wider industry stakeholders and the public on its proposed solutions following the report’s release, Singapore has instead decided it will introduce legislative changes drafted in isolation.  The proposed legislation’s vague rules and processes threaten the very conditions Singapore is looking to create for innovation and digital technologies to thrive.

Expanded Privileges for Individuals

The Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill (text here) was introduced at the same time as the Online Falsehoods Bill and amends a 2014 law.  The amendments provide similar remedies and course of actions to individuals as the Online Falsehoods Bill.  Individuals could appeal to the courts to issue orders to stop the spread of “false” statements by requiring platforms to take action to remove content and/or order corrections to run alongside content, in essence giving individuals in Singapore the same remedies as those granted to the government under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

Conclusion

The bills could come into force as early as this summer.  If enacted, such regulations would significantly discourage Internet services’ operation in the country, harming Singapore’s ambitious digital trade goals.  Singapore would also be joining the list of Asian countries that are taking ill-advised approaches to regulating online content (notably Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam), and could even influence further action by neighboring countries.

Digital Trade

Companies rely on clear, predictable rules that facilitate digital trade to export their products and services around the world. These rules include balancing the competing interests between encouraging investment and enabling information access; promoting the free flow of information online; and maintaining balanced intermediary liability regimes.