Parliament: Law against online falsehoods will not stifle free speech: Shanmugam

Graphics on the fake news issue in the underground pavement leading to the Esplanade last year. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said leaving falsehoods to spread will crowd out legitimate debate.
Graphics on the fake news issue in the underground pavement leading to the Esplanade last year. Changes spelt out in the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill earlier this month were welcomed by lawyers and experts.

The draft law against online falsehoods will not affect the right to free speech, and could even encourage it by exposing people to more viewpoints, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

He was addressing concerns that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill can lead to censorship, given that it vests the Government with the power to decide what is false and also to order actions or mete out punishments.

Mr Shanmugam said the proposed law deals with statements of fact and not with opinions.

Referring to the Select Committee hearings held in March last year on the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, he said: "Lawyers will know, you can define what is true and what is false when you refer to facts... (This legislation) doesn't deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints, however reasonable or unreasonable."

In fact, Mr Shanmugam said, leaving falsehoods to spread will crowd out legitimate debate.

He highlighted what he called the modern phenomenon of people spreading falsehoods in the marketplace of ideas to confuse others and to alter the terms of debate.

Singapore is among 20 countries that have implemented laws or are considering them to tackle the problem of fake news.

"I will say we are behind the curve in the sense that there are a lot of falsehoods being propagated.

"If they are not dealt with, then free speech itself will be undermined, democracy will be undermined, public institutions will be undermined, and that is happening everywhere. So, we have to deal with it," said the minister.

He stressed that the primary tool in the Bill to deal with the impact of online falsehoods is to require people or Internet platforms to carry corrections alongside content that is deemed false.

This means the facts will be put up along with the false content, and people can decide for themselves what they want to believe, he added.

"It is not as if primarily (people are) required to take down (their posts). So, what is the abuse?" he said, rebutting suggestions that the law could be used to clamp down on free speech.

The minister also sought to allay fears that ordinary citizens using social media to share news or information may unwittingly share fake news and be penalised by the law.

"The criminal sanctions only apply when there was deliberateness in the conduct, if they knew it was a falsehood and they were deliberately putting it out and it impacts on public interest," he said. "So, innocent sharing won't attract criminal responsibility."

The Government has also been working with technology companies on how they can comply with the legislation and regulation, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said at a briefing last Thursday on the Bill.

"It is not entirely unexpected that when you introduce regulation to a domain that was previously unregulated, there is going to be pushback, both at a philosophical level and practical level," he added.

"Introducing the legislation is the first step. We will continue to engage and work with the tech companies in the implementation of the legislation and also on the overall broader suite of efforts necessary to counter disinformation in the online space."

Legislation is not the only tool in Singapore's arsenal against online falsehoods, he said.

His ministry has embarked on a series of initiatives to raise public awareness of such untruths and educate people on how to spot them.

This is in line with the recommendations of the Select Committee set up to examine the dangers of online falsehoods. It had recommended in its September report that Singapore take a "multi-pronged response", including legislative and non-legislative measures.

The recommendations, accepted by the Government, included suggestions on improving media and information literacy among Singaporeans and promoting fact-checking.

"Netizens are our first and most important line of defence," Mr Iswaran said.

"The Internet and social media is a common space, and we all have an interest in ensuring that the information it carries is truthful and it remains a shared resource that we can all benefit from."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline Law against online falsehoods will not stifle free speech: Shanmugam. Subscribe