Tech firms are partners but can't be left to check themselves: Shanmugam

Setting out arguments for regulating tech companies and social media giants, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said they have created "a permissive online environment for hate", and cited Facebook's "years of inaction" over hate speech on it
Setting out arguments for regulating tech companies and social media giants, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said they have created "a permissive online environment for hate", and cited Facebook's "years of inaction" over hate speech on its platform in Sri Lanka.PHOTO: REUTERS

Technology companies are partners of the Government in tackling the problem of fake news but they cannot be left to regulate themselves, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament yesterday.

Stressing that "tech companies are not our enemies", he nevertheless indicated that, given their profit motive and their past behaviour elsewhere, they could not be expected to act as a check on themselves.

Referring to Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun's suggestion of a tripartite approach involving the Government, tech companies and consumers rather than relying on legislation alone to tackle fake news, Mr Shanmugam accepted that this was a fair point.

He said that while legislation provides the framework, it could not achieve all the objectives by itself and a lot of cooperation is needed.

He added that tech firms are focused on profits, with little incentive to do things that will affect their bottom line.

But profits must not be made at the expense of Singaporeans, said Mr Shanmugam.

"And they know that the Singapore Government cannot be bought. We don't take money from their lobbyists. And we mean what we say," he added.

 
 
 

"They can do business with us honourably. Singapore provides a proper rule of law framework for everyone, but they must also be responsible."

Mr Shanmugam made these comments during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, where he also discussed Singapore's approach towards tech companies on the issue, including reasons to regulate them.

The proposed legislation, aimed at protecting society against the effects of fake news, will give government ministers powers to issue correction or take-down orders over false statements online if these are deemed to be against the public interest.

Internet platforms, including social media sites, which fail to comply with correction notices could face fines of up to $1 million.

 
 

Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam set out arguments for regulating tech companies and social media giants, saying they have created "a permissive online environment for hate".

He cited Facebook's "years of inaction" over hate speech on its platform in Sri Lanka and said that it had underestimated the effects of fake news. He also pointed to such platforms' failure to quickly take down violent content following the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.

"The fact is that the more users, more content (they have) on their platforms, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, and the more they can profit," said Mr Shanmugam.

In November 2016, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the idea of fake news influencing the 2016 United States presidential election in any way was "a pretty crazy idea" - a comment which he said he regretted for being "dismissive" 10 months later.

And when questioned by the US Senate and Singapore's Select Committee formed to examine the issue of fake news, on whether it had plans to ban the purchase of advertisements if the payment was made using foreign currency, Facebook did not give straight answers, said Mr Shanmugam.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2019, with the headline 'Tech firms are partners but can't be left to check themselves: Minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe