The big tech platforms are expressing concern over the Singapore’s proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, tabled in parliament yesterday.
Among other things, the bill calls for fines of up to S$1 million (about US$738,000) for platforms that do not take down so-called “deliberate online falsehoods” quickly enough or display official corrections. It also makes tech platforms responsible for taking down accounts spreading online falsehoods, including fake bot-driven accounts, and for blocking digital advertising on a site found to be a repeat offender of publishing fake news.
Responding to the bill, Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, which counts Google, Facebook and Twitter as members, said he is “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”.
“We reiterate our position, which echoes that of many experts around the world, that prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue,” Paine said in a statement.
While clarifying that a deliberate online falsehood must be a misleading or false statement of fact, and does not apply to opinion, criticism, parody or satire, the Law Ministry, which tabled the bill, said legal action could be taken if two criteria are met: that there is a false statement of fact, and if taking action would be in the public interest. The latter has a broad interpretation, ranging from a falsehood that affects public health, safety or finances, to that which incites hatred or influences an election.
These criteria appear to have caused Paine and AIC particular concern, as they could give the Singapore government “full discretion over what is considered true or false”.
“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 ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” he added. “AIC will be studying the bill in the coming days.”
Simon Milner, APAC vice president of public policy at Facebook, said the company supports regulation "that strikes the right balance between reducing harm while protecting people's rights to meaningful speech", and that the draft law reflects actions Facebook has already taken to fight fake news.
But he said 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. 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."
A spokesperson for Twitter said the company “appreciated the opportunity to engage with the Singapore government throughout this process. This is the first time that we have seen the law in its entirety and our teams are still reviewing to assess its implications.”
If an offence is found to have been committed under the law, authorities can impose fines and prison sentences on individuals.
A Google spokesperson said: “Misinformation is a significant challenge, and one that we are working hard to address. 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.”
Paine said AIC remains committed to working with the Singapore government to tackle misinformation.