Advertisement

Singapore passes law targeting fake news online. Critics warn of a chilling effect

Singapore passes law targeting fake news online. Critics warn of a chilling effect
Singapore's Parliament, which has been dominated by the People's Action Party since the country gained independence from Britain more than 50 years ago, overwhelmingly supports a law combating false news. (Roslan Rahman / AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook, Twitter and Google have been under fire all over the world for not doing enough to police their platforms for misinformation.

The Singaporean government thinks it has a solution: a law that imposes jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential fines for posting or failing to correct what it calls “online falsehoods” that harm the public interest.

Advertisement

But the bill, which passed late Wednesday night and still needs the president’s signature, has garnered widespread criticism from academics, journalists, human rights advocates, artists and internet companies.

Critics say the effects of the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill will ripple beyond online platforms and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic research. They fear the government will use the law to silence its opponents in a country that has been dominated by one political party since it gained independence from Britain more than 50 years ago.

It’s unclear when President Halimah Yacob intends to sign the bill.

“The real aim of the government through this bill is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly,” Low Thia Khiang, a long-serving opposition member of Parliament, said in a speech Tuesday before the legislature.

Singapore’s government says the law won’t hinder free speech or academic research and is mostly designed to target malicious trolls, bots and fake accounts. It argues the country of 5.6 million is especially vulnerable to misinformation because of its ethnically and religiously diverse society, which is mostly split among Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.

The measure “targets falsehoods, not free speech,” the Ministry of Law said in a prepared statement last month. “It will help ensure online falsehoods do not drown out authentic speech and ideas and undermine democratic processes and society. The aim is to keep in place the conditions for Singaporeans, as individuals and civic society, to build a healthy and robust public discourse, informed by the facts.”

Among the most controversial aspects of the legislation is how it makes Singapore’s government ministers arbiters of facts — something the government says is necessary in order to respond to misinformation quickly. When the ministers identify a falsehood they deem harmful to the public interest, they can force a website or individual to remove the content or display a correction.

Failure to comply can result in up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $735,000.

The bill offers a broad definition of what constitutes the public interest, citing national security, public confidence in the government and relations with other countries, among others.

Government officials said it does not cover opinion, satire, parody or criticism, but also does not explicitly state exemptions for those forms of speech.

The government said an appeal process will be established, though it must go through the minister who first lodged the complaint about a falsehood.

Critics say the bill doesn’t provide enough safeguards against government overreach.

“This puts an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of individual ministers, without a yardstick or consistent criteria to determine how ministers, who could come from different ministries and be issuing orders across a range of different types of publications, will reach or justify their decisions,” Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, a trade group representing tech firms such as Facebook and Google, wrote in an op-ed in the Straits Times.

Facebook, which like Google maintains a major office in Singapore, said it supports legislation combating misinformation, but added it has already taken steps to address the problem.

Advertisement

“We are, however, 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,” Simon Milner, vice president of public policy for Facebook in Asia, said in a prepared statement.

Silicon Valley tech companies have been under enormous pressure to clean up their platforms after the spread of false news exacerbated violence and tensions in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the United States.

Governments around the world, including in Russia, Malaysia and France, have introduced regulations seeking to stem the spread of so-called fake news.

Activists say Singapore’s law could inspire other governments to introduce similar controls.

“It’s not a stretch to see Singapore’s problematic Big Brother attitude toward internet content being copied by other authoritarian governments in the region,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. In Southeast Asia, “bad human rights ideas spread among governments like the flu in a kindergarten class.”

Tech companies long argued that they bore no responsibility for their content because they were neutral platforms, not publishers. But Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which belongs to Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have recently bowed to public pressure and increased efforts to remove problematic content.

The debate in Singapore highlights the fine line between censorship and policing of content for public safety. That line becomes harder to navigate credibly the more a country exhibits a track record of suppressing speech, experts say.

Singapore ranks 151 out of 180 countries in a World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, rating worse than repressive nations such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Freedom House classifies the city-state as only “partly free.”

“There are several challenges to freedom of expression and voice in Singapore,” said Mohan Dutta, a communications professor at Massey University in New Zealand who used to work at the National University of Singapore. “These challenges may be evident in a variety of indicators, from press freedom and academic freedom to freedom of assembly.… I see these aspects as key contextual features that need to be taken into account when considering” this law.

Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist and activist, said the law could backfire by undermining trust in the government and public institutions it seeks to protect.

“What worries me about this law is also that it might further perpetuate a culture where we end up relying on the authorities far too much to process news and information for us, which is ultimately counter-productive if one of the other prongs of the multi-pronged fight against fake news is to increase media literacy,” she said in an e-mail.

Advertisement

“Instead of fostering public confidence in the government and public institutions, we could end up creating an environment where people feel that the government is using a law like [this] not to establish fact, but for partisan gain,” she added. “It might actually end up making things worse.”

Advertisement
Advertisement