Only one minister can block access, funding to errant platforms

Only the communications and information minister will have the power to block access to or order a stop on funding for errant online platforms.

This was made clear by Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran yesterday in Parliament. He said such decisions "have broader implications, beyond individual ministries, for Internet users, the industry and the digital infrastructure".

There are also plans to establish a new unit under the Infocomm Media Development Authority, to help ensure that the new law against fake news is applied consistently.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office allows ministers to issue directions such as corrections on online falsehoods, or require the offending post to be taken down.

The new unit, said Mr Iswaran, will "support the portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility and effectiveness".

Addressing questions from MPs, he said that there were three main considerations behind giving ministers the power to act against online falsehoods.

First is the need for swift action, given the potential of falsehoods to go viral and cause harm.

 
 
 
 
 

The second consideration was the need for deep domain knowledge to properly and quickly assess if a piece of information is fake, and whether it is in the public interest to take action.

"This is important especially as the online falsehood could occur in domains as diverse as healthcare, finance or security," Mr Iswaran explained to the House.

"And if in each of these cases we expect one singular authority to render a judgment in a timely manner, and take expeditious action, I think that is a very tall order."

He said that a minister, supported by his ministry's officials and resources, would have the requisite domain expertise to make such an assessment and act quickly to stem any potential harm arising from an online falsehood.

By vesting these powers in the portfolio ministers, coupled with the recourse to the courts, it also assures that there is accountability.

Aggrieved parties can appeal to the courts if they do not agree with a particular minister's action. That minister is also answerable to Parliament, Mr Iswaran added.

By assigning the powers to correct or take down online falsehoods to portfolio ministers, the law "appropriately and correctly locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make swift decisions", he said.

"This is essential when you are dealing with the virality of online falsehoods."

Adrian Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Only one minister can block access, funding to errant platforms'. Print Edition | Subscribe