Singapore has passed a fake-news bill that gives its government ministers wide-ranging power to control what they consider to be “online falsehoods”.
The passing of the Protection from Online Manipulation and Falsehoods Act (POFMA) followed a two-day debate that lasted more than 14 hours, ending at 10 pm on Wednesday.
The sweeping nature of the bill, during a time when the definition of fake news has become muddied by politics, has prompted widespread concern over free speech and abuse of power both inside and outside Parliament.
Government officials have stressed that the new law is designed to safeguard society against harmful falsehoods, and is not targeted at opinions and criticisms, nor satire or parody.
The bill grants government ministers broad powers, such as the ability to demand corrections, order the removal of content, or block websites deemed to be proliferating “deliberate online falsehoods” that are contrary to the public interest. Penalties for not complying with orders include fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail time.
Government officials also stressed that orders to remove or correct content will mostly be directed at tech companies rather than average citizens.
Tech companies have roundly opposed the bill. Facebook's VP of public policy in Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner, said the company remains "concerned with aspects of the new law”.
"We are committed to reducing the spread of misinformation in Singapore and elsewhere. We recently rolled out third-party fact-checking in Singapore, which complements our work to disrupt coordinated inauthentic behavior and to create more transparency for political ads,” Milner said.
“We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grants 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. We hope that reassuring Ministerial statements lead to a proportionate and measured approach in practice.”
A Google spokesperson said the company is concerned the law will "hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem".
“Misinformation is a challenging issue and we are working hard to address it. The intensity of the debate over the last few weeks has highlighted the need for a full and transparent public consultation," the spokesperson said. "How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policy makers on this process.”
A Twitter spokesperson said the company is committed to working with the Singapore Government as well as all stakeholders to "serve and promote the health of the public conversation".
"We also hope the Singapore Government will take into account points we raised through our consultation process and that those recommendations can be reflected in the Codes of Practice, particularly the implications for freedom of expression and the potential for regulatory overreach," they added.