By Spencer Feingold
Internet giants like Facebook and Google are raising the alarm about a new law passed in Singapore that gives the government broad power to demand that so-called “fake news” be removed from their platforms.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed last week by Singapore’s parliament and gives the government broad powers to decide what is fraudulent and establishes a wide array of enforcement mechanisms.
“Prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue,” Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition (which represents major companies like Amazon, Twitter, and Apple) said in a statement. “We are also concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.”
First introduced in April by the government’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, the law aims to stop fake news from “being used to divide society, spread hate, and weaken democratic institutions.”
Individuals found guilty of producing fake news, manipulating search algorithms, or creating fraudulent social media accounts can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and be fined up to $730,000.
“As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” Paine added. Similar laws have already been passed in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Russia.
POFMA also mandates that online platforms remove content the government deems fraudulent or issue warnings and corrections. Companies that fail to comply face hefty fines.
Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for more government oversight around the world in a widely published op-ed last month, also took issue with the law.
“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,” Simon Milner, the company’s Asia-Pacific vice president of public policy, told Cheddar in an interview.
Facebook has previously drawn the ire of Singaporean authorities. In November of last year, the government’s Ministry of Law publicly berated the company for not removing a post that was “clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore.” The ministry added that Facebook cannot be “relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.”
Nonetheless, the social media behemoth maintains large operations in the country. Facebook announced last year plans to build an 11-story, 170,000-square-meter data center in Singapore’s Tanjong Kling district, which will be the company’s first custom built center in Asia and one of the largest data facilities in the world. In March, Facebook also launched a digital literacy and safety program in Singapore, which it soon hopes to roll out to other Asian countries.
Milner added that Facebook hopes the POFMA will take “a proportionate and measured approach in practice.”
Also concerning for tech companies is the law’s reach into encrypted chat platforms, such as Telegram or Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook. Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong recently said that closed platforms are ideal “for the deliberate spread of falsehoods” since they are hidden from view, adding that POFMA “therefore recognizes that platforms that are closed are not necessarily private.” It remains unclear how the government will access the platforms.
Google, whose Asia-Pacific operations are headquartered in Singapore, said it is concerned the “law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem,” a company spokesperson told Cheddar. The spokesperson added that Google remains committed to working with the authorities on the laws implementation.
A Twitter spokesperson also said that the platform hoped “the concerns carefully articulated by academics, journalists, and civil society groups in Singapore and around the world over recent weeks will be addressed appropriately.”
'Yet Another Tool to Suppress and Censor News'
The law was heavily supported by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his People’s Action Party (PAP), which has dominated Singaporean politics for decades and has implemented many of the country’s well known restrictions on public assemblies and societal expressions. The vast majority of PAP lawmakers voted in favor of the bill, which passed 72–9, while all nine parliamentarians from the opposition Workers’ Party voted against it.
“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society,” Lee said in a speech endorsing the bill in March.
Yet, humanitarian groups and free speech advocates worry the law will have a chilling effect on public discourse and suppress press freedom — Singapore was ranked 151 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders in their 2019 freedom index.
“This law will give Singapore’s ministers yet another tool to suppress and censor news that does not fit with the People’s Action Party-dominated government’s authoritarian narrative,” Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior southeast Asian representative, said in a statement.
Amnesty International also criticized the law, saying it will “dramatically curtail freedom of expression” and give “authorities unchecked powers to clamp down on online views of which it disapproves.”
The law, however, claims to only target “false or misleading” content, not “opinions, criticisms, satire or parody” and does have some support at home. Singapore’s main daily newspaper, The Straits Times, endorsed the law in an editorial published on Saturday, saying it was necessary to safeguard society from wrongdoers.
“Sadly, the [The Straits Times] is a Singapore government lapdog, not a journalism watch dog [sic]of any sort. Really sad seeing this kind of toadyism from a national newspaper,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted in response.