On Wednesday 8 May, the Singapore parliament passed a controversial anti-‘fake news’ bill. Entitled The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it will legally permit the government to demand the removal of online content deemed by it to be false.
We reported on the prospect of this bill in April, quoting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said: “In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done.”
It emerges that there are also potential penalties for perpetrators of up to 10 years in prison, or fines of up to S$1 million ($734,000).
While tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – all of whom have headquarters within the city-state – have declared their willingness to cooperate with the prospect of greater regulation, these companies have issued statements against the new Singapore law, arguing that it puts too much power for the executive to decide what is true and what is false.
In response to Reuters, Google stated: “We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem.” Simon Milner, Facebook’s Asia-Pacific Vice-President of Public Policy, said: “We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and to push a government notification to users.”
Reporters Without Borders rank Singapore at a lowly 151 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index. Fears that the law will function as a crackdown on dissenting speech have been suggested by many human rights and internet watchdog organizations.
The International Commission of Jurists, an organization made up of judges, lawyers and other legal experts dedicated to the promotion of global human rights, wrote an open letter to the Singapore authorities, in which they suggest the bill has “far-reaching limitations on the rights to freedom of expression, opinion and information.”
As reported in The Guardian, Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, described the law as a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals.”
Despite this, Law Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam defended the bill, saying: “Free speech should not be affected by this bill. We are talking here about falsehoods. We are talking about bots…trolls…fake accounts and so on.”
The bill was passed without any of the suggested amendments made by industry observers and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) that may reassure those concerned about an overreach of power. One such suggestion, not taken up, was that action should only be taken against statements proven to be objectively false and exclude opinions, satire, comments, generalizations, parody or anecdote.
The Singapore government has done little to hide its animosity towards Facebook since it denied requests to remove information last year. Information about a feud between Prime Minister Lee and his siblings over the will of their late father, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, has also proliferated over Facebook since 2017.
The law has few restrictions, applicable across platforms and even private communication apps, including Telegram and WhatsApp. Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong defended this decision: “Closed platforms, chat groups, social media groups, can serve as a public megaphone as much as an open platform.”
The law is set to be implemented within the next few weeks.