Proposed law enables targeted, swift action: Shanmugam

Shanmugam explains why new law is needed, noting it will give the courts greater powers

The proposed law aimed at tackling online falsehoods can do so in a targeted and speedy manner, especially to quell viral fake news, while also providing the courts with greater powers, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

This is why the new law is preferable even though other legislation already exists that allows the Government to compel the removal or correction of online falsehoods, he told Parliament when presenting the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for debate.

Explaining the need for Singapore to have new laws to tackle the problem of online falsehoods, Mr Shanmugam said existing powers are wider than the proposed powers under the Bill, which has ironically been criticised for being too sweeping.

Citing current laws, such as the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, Mr Shanmugam said they collectively provide powers to order a take-down of any material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, criminalise the transmission of false or fabricated messages on the Internet and require clarifications to be put up, among other things.

"Some of these powers have existed since the 1960s. Others were added on subsequently with development of technology," he added.

"Most people in the street don't even know of the Broadcast Act, or other legislation, and (there is) no impact on what they have been saying."

Referring to the new Bill, Mr Shanmugam said four aspects of it have been criticised: the provision to order a take-down of material, the powers vested in the ministers, the definition of public interest, and the definition of falsehoods.

But he pointed out that under the Broadcasting Act, the Infocomm Media Development Authority can take down any material that it considers to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or anything that is prohibited by Singapore law.

Meanwhile, Section 45 of the Telecommunications Act criminalises the transmission of false or fabricated material.

In comparison, the new Bill is much narrower, and applies only to factual falsehoods, said Mr Shanmugam. In addition, the Government must show that the falsehoods are against public interest, which is set out in the draft law.

Another criticism of the new Bill is that it sidelines the courts.

Rebutting this, Mr Shanmugam said the courts will, in fact, have much greater oversight under the proposed law.

It provides for people to appeal directly to the courts through a fast and inexpensive process, he added. On top of this, people can seek judicial review.

"Some of the discussion by those opposed to this Bill... seems to be without an understanding of the existing position," he added.

"Whatever concerns there are about the Bill, they cannot logically have been increased by this Bill, and lawyers will know when you have a narrower Bill... in general, the narrower Act will apply. So in fact there represents a narrowing of the current position."

Noting that the Government could have decided to rely on existing legislation with slight tweaks, he said it would have meant that there was no need to make the Government's powers narrower, or to give greater judicial oversight.

"If we had taken that approach, the result would have been an instrument with none of the calibration that the Bill proposes, or the judicial oversight which is also going to be made speedier."

But new legislation was found to be preferable to provide the necessary scope, speed and adaptability to deal with the realities of the problem, Mr Shanmugam said, noting that it was the recommendation of the Select Committee that was set up last year to look into the problem of online falsehoods.

He added that falsehoods are a major factor attacking societies, and Singapore had to act fast to avoid going down the road of some countries where people have lost their trust in public institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2019, with the headline 'Proposed law enables targeted, swift action: Minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe