Parliament: Ministers to decide what is fake news under proposed law

Decentralised approach aimed at dealing with online falsehoods in a speedy manner

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran

The Government will make the decision on what is deemed false under proposed laws to fight the spread of online falsehoods.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill gives Singapore's ministers the power to trigger actions, such as the correction or removal of false content.

This decentralised approach is aimed at tackling online falsehoods in a speedy way, given their tendency to go viral quickly.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, speaking to reporters at a briefing on the Bill last Thursday, said: "The domain minister, advised by his officials, is in the best position to decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest."

Once the false content is deemed to be harmful to public interest, the minister will work with the competent authority in the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) on the action to take. For instance, he can order corrections to run alongside the false content or ask for it to be taken down.

He can also order the blocking of accounts or sites that are spreading the untruths.

Each minister will deal with falsehoods under his or her domain. For instance, falsehoods about hospitals will come under the Health Minister, while falsehoods about banks will come under the Finance Minister.

The Bill also provides for criminal sanctions against "malicious actors" who deliberately spread falsehoods against public interest.

In such cases, the police will investigate, and those responsible will be charged in court. If found guilty, they can be fined or sent to jail.

Speaking on the safeguards in the law, Mr Iswaran said while many other laws in Singapore make reference to public interest, the Bill goes a step further and spells out what constitutes public interest.

For instance, something is deemed to be in the public interest if it is in the interest of Singapore's security, has to do with the protection of public health or finances, and is in the interest of friendly relations with other countries, among other things.

Under the Bill, ministers can act only when two conditions are met: A false statement of a fact has been communicated in Singapore through the Internet, and when it is in the public interest to intervene.

While people and technology companies will have to comply with the orders to avoid penalties, those who feel aggrieved can seek redress through the courts, which will have the final say on what is false.

To avoid a conflict of interest during political elections, the Bill provides for an "alternate authority" to be designated during election time.

Ministers must devolve their powers to senior civil servants during these periods, and must do so before an election is called.

5 things to know about draft law against online falsehoods

Tabled yesterday, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill seeks to protect society from damage by online falsehoods created by "malicious actors".

1 How does the Bill define falsehood?

The law, if passed, is aimed at providing the Government with powers to act against online falsehoods in order to protect the public interest.

A falsehood is defined as a statement of fact that is false or misleading. It does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody, which the public can continue to upload and share.

The Bill lists several definitions of public interest, which includes Singapore's security, protection of public health or public safety, and Singapore's friendly relations with other countries.

Other scenarios: to prevent influence on the outcome of an election or a referendum; to prevent incitement of feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups of persons; or to prevent a diminution of public confidence in public institutions.

2 What will happen if a falsehood is identified?

For action to be taken, there are two criteria that must be met: There must be a false statement of fact, and it must also be in the public interest.

The minister, advised by his officials, will decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest.

Once that judgment is made, the ministers will work with a competent authority within the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) on the action.

This could include an order to run a correction alongside the falsehood or to take it down. It can also involve blocking certain accounts and sites that are spreading the falsehood.

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said research has shown that corrections work, and are an important antidote to falsehoods. Website owners will have to ensure that those who previously read the falsehood also see the correction.

Corrections will be the primary action of the Bill. In more serious cases, take-down orders may be issued to remove the falsehoods.

3 So, when will criminal sanctions apply?

Only "malicious actors", or those who act to deliberately undermine society using falsehoods, will be subject to criminal action.

Those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing it can influence the outcome of an election, can be fined up to $50,000, or jailed for up to five years, or both, if found guilty in court.

Those who use bots to amplify the spread of falsehoods will be subject to more severe punishments. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for up to 10 years.

The courts will have the final say on what is false. This means that any decision by the Government on what is false can be overridden by the courts on appeal.

4 How else can the Bill prevent fake news from spreading?

Fake online accounts or bots that spread falsehoods against the public interest can also be disabled.

MinLaw said this targets the use of inauthentic accounts or bots to manipulate and distort discourse among people.

The Bill will also set out binding Codes of Practice for technology companies to keep their online platforms safe and secure.

It will focus on three areas: fake online accounts and bots, digital advertising transparency, and de-prioritising falsehoods.

5 What if a website continues to report fake news?

With the Bill, an online site that repeatedly spreads falsehoods will have its profits cut off, though it will not be shut down.

This will happen to sites that have published three different falsehoods against the public interest in the preceding six months.

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 posts or removing them.

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

Ng Huiwen

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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 Ministers to decide what is fake news under proposed law. Subscribe