More court protection for victims of online falsehoods

The Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill will clarify that the courts can order Internet intermediaries like Facebook which have been used to spread falsehoods to issue corrections to viewers.
The Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill will clarify that the courts can order Internet intermediaries like Facebook which have been used to spread falsehoods to issue corrections to viewers.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Individuals and companies which cannot get their harassers to take down false statements about them online can turn to the courts for corrections to be posted, under a proposed law introduced in Parliament yesterday.

When the falsehood is deemed or likely to have caused serious harm to the applicant's reputation, the courts can also order third parties - such as a media outlet - to publish the correction and draw people's attention to it.

Another change, spelt out in the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill, will allow the courts to make interim orders to stop the spread of false statements. The courts will aim to hear this within 24 hours of the vic-tim's application.

"As false statements can go viral extremely quickly, the courts will be empowered to make relevant interim orders to provide victims with urgent relief," the Law Ministry said in a statement on the Bill.

It will also clarify that the courts can order Internet intermediaries like Facebook which have been used to spread falsehoods to issue corrections to viewers.

Besides posting the correction to those who accessed the false statement, the Internet intermediaries could also be ordered by the courts to distribute the correction to past viewers of it.

These will be in addition to the courts' existing powers to order the original publisher of the false statements and Internet intermediaries to intervene.

While the courts can order the original publisher to post a correction and stop publishing falsehoods, Internet intermediaries like Facebook can also be ordered to disable access to the false statements.

As of December last year, 11 applications have been filed under the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) to take down or correct false statements of fact, said the Law Ministry. The Act was enacted in 2014 and offers civil remedies for false statements of fact.

In 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government cannot invoke the anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them in a case that hinged on the narrow legal question of whether the Government could be considered a "person" under Poha.

The amendments clarify that both individuals and entities - which include companies and organisations, but not government bodies - have access to remedies under Poha, said the Law Ministry.

Government bodies will have to turn to a draft law, which was also introduced in Parliament yesterday, to exercise measures similar to those in the amended Poha.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is aimed at tackling the spread of fake news.

"In an infinite online landscape, entities are just as vulnerable as individuals where falsehoods are concerned," said the Law Ministry's statement on the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill.

"A corporate entity's reputation can be ruined in days if falsehoods about the entity are allowed to go unchecked. The Bill provides recourse to entities when they are the victims of falsehoods."

Cara Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'More court protection for victims of online falsehoods'. Print Edition | Subscribe