Select Committee on fake news: Laws needed for tech companies to act against online falsehoods

The Select Committee said Facebook and Twitter have a policy of generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false.

SINGAPORE - Technology companies may have to come under laws compelling them to act against false information online - with the Government accepting in-principle recommendations by a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

"Legislation would be needed particularly for measures to be taken in response to an online falsehood, since Facebook, Google and Twitter have a policy of generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false," said the 10-member select committee in a report released on Thursday (Sept 20).

The committee looked into 170 written submissions and held eight days of public hearings in March. The Government has accepted in-principle the recommendations.

In their submissions and during the public hearings, Facebook and Twitter expressed concerns about potential legislation, noting that Singapore already has laws to address hate speech and the spread of false news, adding that no single company, governmental or non-governmental actor should be the arbiter of truth.

Apart from legislation, the authorities should also consider whether there is a need for new areas of regulation - such as on the use of personal data - and consider working with stakeholders to develop a voluntary code of practice to tackle falsehoods.

Setting out the reasons for its recommendations, the committee noted that online platforms have transformed the way information is communicated.

Their design and function, however, have also been "integral" in making the spread of online falsehoods a serious global problem.

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The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods made 22 recommendations in a 176-page report submitted to Parliament, about five months after it held public hearings.

While companies have introduced various initiatives to improve their platforms, more can and should be done, the committee said.

"As the evidence suggests, technology companies are in control of the design of their platforms and products, through which they have profited greatly," the committee added, referring to submissions it received from experts. "It follows that they should bear responsibility for preventing their platforms and products from contributing to the creation and proliferation of online falsehoods, which can harm the public interest."

The laws and regulations proposed are aimed at achieving three broad objectives, said the committee.

The first is preventing platforms from being misused to spread falsehoods.

This could be done by prioritising credible content and de-prioritising proven falsehoods to limit circulation, or by shutting down accounts and networks designed to amplify them, the committee suggested.

Companies should also prevent their advertising tools and services from being used to spread falsehoods, and increase the transparency of their advertising by allowing users to see the sponsors behind content.To heighten transparency, there could also be public registers of political advertisements.

Technology firms should also boost users' accountability, such as by carrying out authentication and allowing source tracing to reveal the real people behind posts.

The second objective is to build a "cleaner" online information system and foster an informed public, the committee added.

This could be done by helping users assess the credibility of information, such as by disclosing the sponsors behind content, and by informing users of how online platforms' design determine the content they receive.

Technology firms could go a step further by contributing resources to developing technologies such as automated detection of online falsehoods.

The third objective is for companies to show accountability to their users and the public.

They should come clean about the nature and extent of online falsehoods being spread on their platforms, as well as the effectiveness of their responses.

The committee added that companies should also undergo regular voluntary reporting and independent audits.

"There is a clear need for technology companies to increase their transparency and improve their accountability," said the committee.

In response to the committee's recommendations, Twitter expressed its commitment to keeping people informed about what is happening in the world.

"As such we care deeply about the issues of misinformation as well as disinformation, and their potentially harmful effects on the civic and political discourse that is core to our mission," a Twitter spokesman said.

Noting the complexities at play, he added that Twitter looks forward to authorities' continued engagement with the industry.

A Google spokesman added that it is committed to addressing false information in collaboration with governments, media and civil society, highlighting its support of fact-checking networks through its Google News Initiative and Google News Lab, which have worked closely with Singaporean media, academics and students.

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