New rules to make social media firms accountable for online harms

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SINGAPORE – Laws to tackle online harms will kick in in 2023 after Parliament passed an Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill on Wednesday, with unanimous support from MPs.

The Bill seeks to amend the Broadcasting Act to make social media platforms liable if they fail to protect local users from online harms, placing the Republic among front runners regulating a space that has so far been self-supervised.

For one thing, the Bill will empower the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue orders to social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, to take down egregious content.

This includes posts advocating suicide, self-harm, child sexual exploitation and terrorism, as well as materials that may incite racial or religious tensions or pose a risk to public health.

Failure to comply may attract a fine of up to $1 million, or a direction to have their social media services blocked here.

Internet service providers such as Singtel, StarHub and M1 may also face fines of up to $500,000 for failing to block the services in question.

An accompanying draft Code of Practice for Online Safety, to be imposed on regulated social media platforms, spells out the safeguards needed to prevent users, especially children under 18, from accessing harmful content.

These include tools that allow children or their parents to manage their safety on these services, and mechanisms for users to report harmful content and unwanted interactions.

The code is expected to be rolled out as early as 2023, after a final round of consultation with social media firms.

During the debate on the Bill on Wednesday, which continued from Tuesday, several MPs called for more to be done to protect children and help victims of online harm.

Workers’ Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) and Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) called for age verification for all new sign-ups. “Age verification is needed for parental controls to work,” said Mr Giam.

In her concluding speech, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament that there is currently no international consensus on standards for effective and reliable age verification by social media services which Singapore can also reliably reference.

“Instead, we will continue to closely monitor and extensively consult on the latest developments in age verification technology, taking into account data protection safeguards, and consider viable regulatory options,” she said.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) and Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked why private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are not covered by the Bill, even though image-based sexual abuse largely takes place via private channels.

Responding, Mrs Teo said: “The short answer is that there are legitimate privacy concerns.”

But users are not without recourse, she said. “If individuals encounter harmful messages or unwanted interactions in private messages when using these social media services, they could block the sender or report the sender to the service.”

Mrs Teo clarified that groups with very large memberships, which could be used to propagate egregious content, will be caught under the new online safety law.

Ms Nadia also asked whether the Government had considered streamlining online-related harms into the Bill.

“Relying on sections in the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) places a burden on victims to show that harm has indeed been inflicted,” she said, citing Australia’s Online Safety Act, which replaced a patchwork of online safety legislation.

Even though amendments to Poha in 2019 have made doxxing – sharing of someone’s information and photos online with the intention to cause harm – a criminal offence, critics have agreed that the burden is still on victims to show that harm has been inflicted.

Mrs Teo did not rule out future consolidation of all kinds of online safety regulations, but she emphasised that the focus now is “to identify and address specific areas of harm in a targeted manner”.

Separately, Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked if more could be done for victims of doxxing on social media.

She recounted the experience of a resident who was traumatised by an anonymous social media account holder who posted her personal details, including her name, school and employer information, online without her consent.

The resident reported the incident to the social media platform, but it did not do anything until after “an extended period of time”, said Ms Yeo.

A police report was made but there was no certainty that the report would expedite the removal of the offending post, she added.

Responding, Mrs Teo said the Ministry of Law is looking into how victims can be better empowered to put a stop to all kinds of harm, including doxxing, bullying and cancel campaigns, and seek redress against those who are responsible for them.

“We’re not stopping with this Bill,” she added, noting that more details will be announced later.

Among the 16 MPs who spoke was Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

He called for pro bono legal services to be provided by the Legal Aid Bureau to online harm victims.

This would be similar to Defence Guild SG, a programme launched in June 2021 that gives free legal advice to women who have faced sexual harassment or violence, he said.

He also asked that the tools for users to report online harm be standardised across all platforms.

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also asked if a centralised government portal would be set up for users to report harmful content. This could facilitate timely enforcement action against online harm.

A total of five MPs suggested that Singapore specify a takedown timeline, similar to how online harm is tackled in other jurisdictions such as Germany and Australia. Their benchmark is 24 hours.

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