Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods: How to respond

Tech giants may be compelled by law to act

Facebook earlier expressed concern about new laws, noting that Singapore already has laws to address hate speech and the spread of false news.
Facebook earlier expressed concern about new laws, noting that Singapore already has laws to address hate speech and the spread of false news.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

Countering the spread of online falsehoods

Technology companies may have to come under laws compelling them to act against false information online, with the Government accepting in principle recommendations by the 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," the 10-member committee said in a report released yesterday.

Facebook earlier expressed concern about new laws, noting that Singapore already has laws to address hate speech and the spread of false news. Twitter said as well that no single company, or governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth. But this did not stop the committee from suggesting that the authorities consider legislation, among other measures.

It also asked the Government to consider if there is a need for new areas of regulation - such as on the use of personal data - and approaches like developing a voluntary code of practice to tackle falsehoods.

"As the evidence suggests, technology companies are in control of the design of their platforms and products, through which they have profited greatly," it said. "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, the committee said.

The first is to prevent platforms from being misused to spread falsehoods. This can be done by prioritising credible content and de-prioritising proven falsehoods to limit circulation, the committee said. Companies can also shut down accounts and networks designed to amplify falsehoods.

 
 
 
 
 

They should also prevent their advertising tools and services from being used to spread falsehoods, and increase transparency by allowing users to see content sponsors. There could be public registers of political advertisements as well, and companies should boost users' accountability.

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

This can be done by helping users assess the credibility of information, and informing users of how platforms' design affect the content they receive.

The third objective is for companies to show accountability. They should come clean about the nature and extent of online falsehoods spread on their platforms, and the effectiveness of their responses.

Companies should undergo regular voluntary reporting and independent audits, said the committee.

In response, Twitter said it looks forward to the authorities' continued engagement with the industry, while Google said it is committed to addressing false information in collaboration with governments, media and civil society. Facebook said its efforts to counter falsehoods will "never be finished", adding that it has taken steps to combat falsehoods, such as by removing fake accounts and disrupting the financial incentives for those behind false news.

Asked about technology firms' potential resistance to legislation yesterday, Select Committee member K. Shanmugam, who is Law and Home Affairs Minister, said companies are also in discussions with legislatures in other countries. "There is increasing recognition on all sides that there has to be responsibility on the part of tech companies, and that governments have to intervene to ensure that responsibility."

Committee member Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport, and Communications and Information, added: "If our objectives and our intent are all aligned to create a trusted space, trusted platforms, citizen engagement... I can't see why the tech companies would not want to find ways to enable that... We have to have a negotiation about what they think is possible and what we think is necessary."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2018, with the headline 'Tech giants may be compelled by law to act'. Print Edition | Subscribe