Parliament: Jail, fine to curb fake news

Internet platforms including social media sites like Facebook will also be required to act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections alongside such posts, or removing them.
Internet platforms including social media sites like Facebook will also be required to act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections alongside such posts, or removing them.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

* Those who spread falsehoods with malicious intent face penalty * Ministers to get power to order content correction or removal * Opinions, criticisms, satire or parody not included in the Bill

People in Singapore who spread online falsehoods with a malicious intent to harm public interest could face jail terms of up to 10 years, under a draft law designed to protect society from fake news.

Internet platforms, including social media sites like Facebook, will also be required to act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections alongside such posts, or removing them.

Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $1 million.

Individuals can also be directed to put up similar corrections and could be fined up to $20,000 and jailed up to 12 months if they refuse to do so.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, introduced in Parliament yesterday, will add to Singapore's arsenal against fake news, and comes as countries worldwide scramble to stem the spread of misinformation online.

For action to be triggered under the proposed law, two criteria must be met: There must be a false statement of fact put up online, and it must be in the public interest for the Government to take action.

This means opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are not caught by the Bill, which will not penalise people who criticise the Government without making false claims.

 
 
 

Examples of false or misleading statements of fact include assertions like the Government has declared war on the country's neighbours, when it has not done so.

On the other hand, statements of opinion like "the Government is to blame for rising inequality" will not fall within the ambit of the new law.

The Bill gives ministers powers to implement a range of non-punitive remedies to curb the impact of online falsehoods.

Besides this provision, "malicious actors" who knowingly spread falsehoods to undermine society will face criminal sanctions. For instance, those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing they could influence the outcome of a political election, can be fined up to $50,000, or jailed a maximum of five years, or both.

Those who use bots - software applications that run automated tasks over the Internet - to amplify the spread of untruths will be punished more severely. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for a maximum of 10 years.

People who innocently forward something on WhatsApp, or share a post on Facebook, will not be criminally liable.

The draft law also sets out a code of practice for technology companies as an upstream measure to prevent the abuse of Internet platforms to propagate untruths.

"Essentially, you have to take a policy viewpoint as to whether anyone can be allowed, in pursuit of profit, to damage your country... as a Government, we owe a duty to our citizens to make sure we protect our society," Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters at the Law Ministry yesterday.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said at a media briefing last Thursday: "You cannot be assured that this is going to be foolproof because social media and technology are evolving. But we are hoping that imposing these measures will have a leavening effect on these platforms."

About 20 countries have turned to legislation to fix the problem of fake news, which has sparked riots and undermined democracy by affecting election results.

A parliamentary Select Committee convened last year to study the issue had recommended that Singapore take a "multi-pronged approach" against the scourge.

At the weekend, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said there should be " a more active role for governments and regulators". The social network, with 3.5 million users every month here, has come under fire for enabling the spread of misinformation.

Mr Shanmugam said he expects the Government to take mostly non-punitive measures.

"Our preference is to leave the material there (and) just have something which says 'this is inaccurate, for the truth go to such a place'. That way, people can read what they want and make up their own mind."

The Government also has other tools, like cutting off advertisements on fake news sites.

People can challenge its decisions in the High Court or seek judicial review to see if it has gone against other laws.

On whether the move will lead to censorship, Mr Shanmugam said requiring people to put up corrections encourages, rather than restricts, free speech as it exposes people to more viewpoints. "So, in fact, it is calibrated to allow for more informed discussion on issues," he added.

Parliament will debate the Bill in the coming months.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Jail, fine to curb fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe