Powers granted under proposed foreign interference countermeasures law include blocking social media accounts

The Bill would grant the Home Affairs Minister powers to issue directions to various entities, including social media services.
The Bill would grant the Home Affairs Minister powers to issue directions to various entities, including social media services.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Content from social media accounts could be blocked here if they are determined to be part of a hostile information campaign, under a proposed law to tackle foreign interference in domestic politics.

Under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill introduced in Parliament on Monday (Sept 13), the Home Affairs Minister can issue a direction to social media providers to block content by these accounts from being viewed in Singapore.

The Bill would also grant the minister powers to issue directions to various entities such as social media services, electronic services, Internet access services, as well as to people who run websites, blogs or social media pages.

These powers are meant to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity of foreign origin, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in a statement setting out the purpose and scope of the new Bill.

They do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal, said MHA.

"Singaporeans have the right to discuss politics. Nor do they apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government," it said.

Most of the directions of the proposed law can be issued if all of these conditions are met:

- Communications activity is taking place or has taken place

- The activity is conducted by or on behalf of foreign actors

- There is information published here resulting from the communications

- The Minister of Home Affairs assesses it is in the public interest to authorise these directions

Other powers granted to the minister include issuing technical assistance directions to service providers requiring them to disclose information that the authorities need to determine if a foreign actor is behind any harmful communications activity.

This could include hostile information campaigns involving fake accounts or bot networks, which MHA says are "highly sophisticated". The authorities would need information from service providers to determine if these campaigns are carried out by foreigners.

The minister can also require the removal of content that can cause immediate and significant harm in Singapore - such as inviting violence or causing hostility between groups - if these are part of a hostile information campaign.

The person communicating specific content to viewers in Singapore, and Internet intermediaries, can be required to stop doing so.

Should they fail to comply, the minister may order Internet service providers to block access to the content, said MHA.

The Bill also provides for "upstream" intervention that is more preventive in nature.

For instance, an app removal direction can be issued to require an app distribution service to stop apps known to be used by foreign principals to conduct hostile information campaigns from being downloaded in Singapore.

This direction can be given if the app has previously been subject to at least one direction, said MHA. This is excluding the technical assistance direction or another app removal direction.

Under the proposed law, the Government will also be able to require various parties to carry a mandatory message in a "conspicuous and timely manner" to warn Singaporeans about a hostile information campaign.

These Must-Carry Directions can take four forms, covering the communicator, social media companies, newspapers, telecommunications providers and the owner of a website.

To prevent the funding of content harmful to Singapore, the proposed law will also require those who have enabled or published such material to return money or material support they have accepted to their source, or to surrender them to a competent authority appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs.

This rule would apply to Singaporeans, people living here, as well as locally registered entities.

The Bill will also target platforms of hostile information campaigns like websites created by the foreign principals. Such a platform will be designated as an online location that is a purveyor of harmful content once it has been the subject of at least one direction under the Bill, excluding technical assistance directions.

These Proscribed Online Locations (POLs) must then declare themselves as such, and no one will be allowed to purchase advertising space on them or on other websites that promote them. Failing to comply will be an offence.

"The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs in order to stem their ability to mount further hostile information campaigns against Singapore," said MHA.