Technology companies in Singapore will be required to abide by codes of practice in a proposed fake news law to prevent their platforms from being used to spread falsehoods.
The codes have three aims: To prevent and counter the misuse of online accounts by malicious actors who can hide behind them by being anonymous; to enhance the transparency of political advertising; and to downplay online falsehoods, said Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran in Parliament yesterday.
Apart from the draft law's measures such as corrections and take-down orders, tackling issues of online falsehoods upstream is necessary to help ensure a safer online environment, he added when speaking at the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
The Bill was passed in Parliament after two days of debate.
In his 30-minute speech, Mr Iswaran touched on the non-legislative measures needed to combat online falsehoods, like initiatives to build up media literacy, as well as the need for a "calibrated set of measures" to deal with the swift spread of online falsehoods.
"The more we can work with technology companies on such upstream systems and processes, the less we will need to issue corrections or take-down directions downstream," he told the House.
Under the draft law's codes of practice, Internet intermediaries like social media platforms have to use reasonable verification measures to prevent fake accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities, he said.
MR LOUIS NG (NEE SOON GRC)
"Having the tools to react promptly to falsehoods is important. However, the Government cannot constantly be on the back foot, playing whack-a-mole whenever another falsehood pops up.
If we want people to present the truth, we must demonstrate readiness to give them the truth and the data they need. Instead of being reactive, we can be proactive in spreading the truth by helping people who would like to report on the truth to obtain government data needed to verify their facts. "
DR CHIA SHI-LU (TANJONG PAGAR GRC)
"It is, of course, important that we continue to invest in public education about how to become more discerning while using social media and the Internet, but the general public cannot be relied on to always be able to tell what is fake news and what is not. In fact, a recent study by MIT showed that people are 70 per cent more likely to share online falsehoods than facts. Laws still need to be in place to safeguard the public interest and for public safety."
MS JOAN PEREIRA (TANJONG PAGAR GRC)
"There is also a need to enhance digital literacy for the elderly as they may be a vulnerable group that is susceptible to fake news. Unlike the young, they may be less familiar with technology and the dangers that are lurking in the online space.
I understand that the Government has introduced some programmes and initiatives, such as the Silver InfoComm Junctions... These are encouraging steps forward to enhance digital literacy among senior citizens."
MR HENRY KWEK (NEE SOON GRC)
"We must communicate clearly and simply to our people what responsible speech entails, factoring our unique circumstances as a small, multicultural, multi-religious and multiracial city-state.
Because what matters is not just ensuring that fake news that's meant to manipulate has no place in Singapore, but also to ensure that our laws do not unintentionally curtail healthy and necessary discourse or diminish the marketplace of ideas that healthy democracies require."
The tech firms also have to ensure that political advertisements disclose who is the source. "This encompasses election advertising and advertisements on issues of public interest or controversy in the Singapore context, including those pertaining to race or religion," he added.
Mr Iswaran also said that requiring Internet intermediaries to de-prioritise online fake news will ensure credible content is given prominence and falsehoods are prevented from gaining prominence.
He noted that the scope of these codes takes reference from international norms, including the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, as well as consultations with companies and world experts.
To implement the proposed measures, a Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office is being planned.
It will be set up in the Infocomm Media Development Authority and work with the tech companies on the codes of practice.
Mr Iswaran said the implementation of the codes will be "targeted and graduated", and the focus is on ensuring the tech companies have adequate systems and processes in place.
Where breaches occur, the Pofma Office will consider factors such as the seriousness of the breach, whether it reflects a systemic deficiency and if the companies' efforts to remedy the problems are adequate.
Noting that tech companies are an important part of Singapore's business ecosystem and digital economy, he said the Pofma Office will work with the firms to develop company-specific annexes to the codes.
"These annexes will clarify how each (Internet) intermediary will operationalise the broad outcomes, principles and objectives in the codes, taking into account the unique features of each intermediary's platform, its existing systems and measures to combat disinformation, technical capabilities as well as effectiveness," he said.