Parliament: Up to 10 years’ jail for individuals and $1 million fine for firms under draft law against online falsehoods

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

SINGAPORE - Those 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, tabled in Parliament on Monday (April 1), will add to Singapore's arsenal against fake news, and comes as countries around the world 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 also be in the public interest for the Government to take action.

This means opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are not caught by the Bill, and people will not fall afoul of the proposed law if they criticise the Government without making false claims.

Examples of statements of fact that are false or misleading include assertions that the Government has declared war on its neighbours, when it has not done so, or claims that the Monetary Authority of Singapore is bankrupt when it is not the case.

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

The Bill gives ministers the power to order the correction or removal of online content that are false, among a range of non-punitive remedies meant to deal with the impact of online falsehoods.

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

Once that judgment is made, the minister will work with the competent authority within the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore on the action to take against the falsehood.

Besides this, the proposed law also allows for "malicious actors" - those who knowingly spread falsehoods in order to undermine society - to be taken to task. Criminal sanctions under the Bill are reserved for this group.

For instance, those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing that 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 - software applications that run automated tasks over the Internet - to amplify the spread of falsehoods, meanwhile, will be subject to more severe punishments. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for up to 10 years.

People who innocently forward something on Whatsapp, or share a post on Facebook, will not be criminally liable. They will instead be subject to correction or removal orders, under other parts of the Bill.

The proposed law also sets out a code of practice that technology companies must adhere to, as an upstream measure to prevent the abuse of Internet platforms to propagate untruths in the first place.

"Essentially you have to take a policy viewpoint as to whether anyone can be allowed, in pursuit of profit, to damage your country... I think as a government we owe a duty to our citizens to make sure that we protect our society," said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam to reporters on Monday.

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran said: "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."

He added: "The tech companies have spoken about community standards, and these measures will basically help to focus more on these standards and what actions are needed to uphold them."

Some 20 countries around the world have turned to legislation to fix the problem of fake news, which has sparked riots in some places and is said to have 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.

It received 169 written representations and heard oral evidence from 65 individuals and organisations during a public hearing over eight days in March last year.

On Saturday, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that there should be " a more active role for governments and regulators". The social network, which has 3.5 million users in Singapore, has come under fire for enabling the spread of misinformation.

Mr Shanmugam, answering questions from reporters about the Bill on Monday, said he expects that in most cases, the Government will turn to the non-punitive measures, such as making orders for people to put up corrections alongside the post that is deemed false.

He added: "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, in a sense, people can read whatever they want and make up their own mind."

In some cases, where the falsehoods can cause serious harm, the Government will order posts to be taken down, he added.

It also has other tools at its disposal, such as directing technology companies to disable fake accounts operated by bots, and cutting off advertisements on fake news sites so they cannot make a profit.

Non-compliance with these orders could result in daily monetary penalties, fines and also jail time.

Those who disagree with the Government's decisions can launch a challenge in the High Court, which can override the decisions and ultimately decide what is false.

Judicial review is also available, in which the court can look at whether the Government's decision has gone against other laws.

Asked if the new Bill might stifle speech and lead to censorship, Mr Shanmugam said requiring people to put up corrections encourages, rather than restricts, speech as it exposes people to more viewpoints.

"So, in fact, it's calibrated to allow for more informed discussion on issues," he added.

But legislation is just one means of achieving the Government's objective, said Mr Iswaran.

His ministry has started a series of initiatives to raise public awareness of online falsehoods so that people can identify such content and is also exploring fact-checking initiatives.

"Ultimately, netizens are our first and most important line of defence... 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," he said.

The Bill will be debated in Parliament in the coming months.

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