Sin­ga­pore pre­pares sweep­ing law to fight ‘on­line false­hoods’

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIO­NAL -

Sin­ga­pore is close to pass­ing a law that could force web­sites to run govern­ment “correction no­tices” along­side con­tent it deems false, and the new rules are likely to af­fect how big so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies like Face­book and Twit­ter op­er­ate in the coun­try.

Un­der the law, called the Pro­tec­tion from On­line False­hoods and Ma­nip­u­la­tion Bill, the govern­ment will also be able to is­sue so-called “take down” or­ders that re­quire the re­moval of con­tent posted by so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies, news or­ga­ni­za­tions or in­di­vid­u­als. In most cases, the govern­ment will de­cide when to bring an ac­tion against some­thing for be­ing “false.” Web­sites will have the right to re­quest a ju­di­cial re­view of the cor­rec­tions or take-downs or­dered by the govern­ment, but only af­ter those or­ders are is­sued.

“This leg­is­la­tion deals with false state­ments of fact,” Sin­ga­pore Min­is­ter for Law K. Shan­mugam told re­porters on Mon­day morn­ing. “It doesn’t deal with opin­ions. It doesn’t deal with view­points. You can have what­ever view­points how­ever rea­son­able or un­rea­son­able.” The bill was put be­fore par­lia­ment on Mon­day evening lo­cal time. It could be­come law in the com­ing month or two.

Bad ac­tors, Shan­mugam con­tin­ued, “ac­tu­ally put in false­hoods into the mar­ket­place to con­fuse oth­ers to change the terms of the de­bate. And in fact it un­der­mines free speech. It un­der­mines democ­racy.” U.S.-based so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly un­der scru­tiny by gov­ern­ments out­side the United States, es­pe­cially in Europe. Sin­ga­pore’s new law would ap­pear to go fur­ther than any­thing on the books in the Euro­pean Union, how­ever.

Last Satur­day, Mark Zucker­berg said he wants gov­ern­ments to play a big­ger role in reg­u­lat­ing the in­ter­net. The Face­book CEO said reg­u­la­tions are needed to pro­tect so­ci­ety from harm­ful con­tent, to en­sure the in­tegrity of elec­tions, to pro­tect peo­ple’s pri­vacy, and to make it pos­si­ble

for peo­ple to move their data from ser­vice to ser­vice. Tech com­pa­nies from out­side Sin­ga­pore will have to ad­here to the leg­is­la­tion if their con­tent af­fects the pub­lic within Sin­ga­pore, the min­is­ter said. “Of course a tech com­pany or any­one can chal­lenge the or­der, and then courts will have to de­cide,” Shan­mugam said, though he pointed out that there will be sanc­tions for non­com­pli­ance.

Sites that run afoul of the law three times in six months can have their “abil­ity to profit” cut off, ac­cord­ing to a press re­lease is­sued by the Sin­ga­pore Min­istry of Law on Mon­day night lo­cal time. In a state­ment Mon­day night lo­cal time, Face­book said it shares the Sin­ga­porean govern­ment’s “com­mit­ment to re­duce the spread of de­lib­er­ate on­line false­hoods.”

“We sup­port reg­u­la­tion that strikes the right bal­ance be­tween re­duc­ing harm while pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s rights to mean­ing­ful speech,” the com­pany said. “In fact, the draft leg­is­la­tion al­ready re­flects a num­ber of in­vest­ments we have made to com­bat false news and dis­rupt at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late civic dis­course,” in­clud­ing among other things dis­rupt­ing co­or­di­nated false be­hav­iour and re­mov­ing fake ac­counts.

“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,” the com­pany said. Face­book is deal­ing with scru­tiny from sev­eral gov­ern­ments, within the United States and be­yond. The com­pany’s trou­bles be­gan in earnest last year when it was re­vealed that a U.K.based po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm called Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica was ex­ploit­ing Face­book’s site to in­flu­ence the U.S. 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

In most in­stances, Shan­mugam said, the law will not call for the out­right re­moval of false in­for­ma­tion. In­stead, it will force sites to post links to “cor­rect facts” along­side those sites’ “false” con­tent. Those “cor­rect” links could steer read­ers to govern­ment sites or to third-party in­sti­tu­tions or or­ga­ni­za­tions the govern­ment con­sid­ers le­git­i­mate. Shan­mugam ac­knowl­edged that Sin­ga­pore has had dis­cus­sions with un­named tech com­pa­nies that have ex­pressed a de­sire to sim­ply re­move false in­for­ma­tion from their web prop­er­ties, rather than run­ning a govern­ment-man­dated correction over the prob­lem­atic con­tent.

“Our own pref­er­ence is that, ac­tu­ally, leave the ma­te­rial there. Just have some­thing which says, ‘This is in­ac­cu­rate. For the truth, go to such-and-such a place.’ And that way, in a sense, peo­ple can read what­ever they want and make up their own mind,” he said.

How­ever, the govern­ment will also have the right un­der the law to is­sue “take-down” or­ders in cases it deems se­ri­ous. Separately, Sin­ga­pore is mak­ing it eas­ier and faster for com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als to lodge com­plaints with the courts that can re­sult in con­tent be­ing struck from web­sites.

Sin­ga­pore is a small, mul­ti­eth­nic coun­try with sev­eral prom­i­nent re­li­gious groups. It is home to a pop­u­la­tion of roughly 6 mil­lion eth­nic Chi­nese, Malays, In­di­ans and oth­ers. Sin­ga­pore has prom­i­nent Bud­dhist, Mus­lim, Hindu and Chris­tian pop­u­la­tions.

The Sin­ga­porean govern­ment cited po­lit­i­cal and eth­nic vi­o­lence in Europe and Asia that has some­times been fu­eled by fake “news” re­ports on­line. France, Sri Lanka, In­dia and oth­ers in re­cent years have seen tur­moil that most ob­servers agree was ex­ac­er­bated or even sparked by mis­lead­ing on­line posts.

Ed­i­tor’s Note: While the po­lice say that a sim­i­lar bill in Saint Lu­cia might as­sist with mit­i­gat­ing in­ac­cu­ra­cies in me­dia and on­line, the govern­ment has not in­di­cated whether it is some­thing of in­ter­est.

Two women us­ing their mo­bile phones at Raf­fles Place, the cen­tral busi­ness district area of Sin­ga­pore.

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