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SG govt proposes law on combating fake news, industry players concerned

In the latest move to combat fake news, the Singapore government has tabled the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in parliament yesterday. Under the law, those who spread or accelerate online falsehoods could face jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to SG$1 million.

In response to the bill, Simon Milner, vice president, public policy, Asia Pacific at Facebook said that the organisation is concerned with aspects of the law that grant “broad powers” to the Singapore executive branch to compel the platform to remove content they deem to be false, and proactively push a government notification to users. He added that Facebook supports regulation that strikes the right balance between reducing harm while protecting people’s rights to meaningful speech.

Facebook hasn’t had the easiest time with SG government. Last year in parliament, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam expressed that Facebook had fallen short in its claimed standards of transparency in handling the incident and user data involving Cambridge Analytica. Representatives from the tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter were grilled on their track records, statements and actions by the Select Committee, in a bid to establish their reliability as partners in fighting fake news.

Meanwhile, managing director of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) Jeff Paine also said that prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing such a highly nuanced and complex issue. The proposed law may also pose significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, as it gives the Singapore government “full discretion over what is considered true or false.”

However, president of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS) Loh Bang Wei Marcus, collective action of organisations and individuals is required to stem the exponential rise of falsehoods. He added, “As the national body for communication professionals, the IPRS will rally our 1,300+ base of member-practitioners to support this multi-pronged effort. After all, our members are charged with the crafting, implementing and gatekeeping of various public and corporate messages.”

Additionally, he acknowledged that the bill is an important step in Singapore’s multi-pronged defense against professional operatives who seek to deceive society for profit, monetary or otherwise.

Over at Twitter, a spokesperson said that the company recognises the importance of the Select Committee’s work on deliberate online falsehoods. However, it is the first time that its teams are seeing the proposed law in its entirety and they are still reviewing it to assess the implications.

Lack of public consultation

Google echoed AIC’s plea for the government to be open to feedback and ideas from the public. A spokesperson said in a media statement that Google urges the government to “allow for a full and transparent public consultation on the proposed legislation.” Google will also study the bill and determine its next steps to address misinformation.

AIC’s Paine added, “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.”

In addition to jail time and hefty fines, the law also clamps down on the use of an inauthentic online account or a bot to communicate falsehoods. Internet platforms or individuals refusing to display corrections alongside malicious posts or remove them may also face hefty fines and jail terms. For the law to come into play, there must be a false statement of a fact communicated and a minister must be of the opinion that the statement harms “public interest”.

It is not uncommon for governments to seek the cooperation of social media platforms. Last month, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has ordered social media platforms to delete the full and edited versions of videos regarding the Christchurch shootings. Additionally, MCMC issued a reminder to all TV stations and members of the public advising them not to share the video.

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