After an intense two-day debate, Singapore’s parliament yesterday passed the anti-fake news bill despite concerns surrounding free speech and abuse of power, reports The Straits Times. The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill gives Singapore’s government powers, without any approval from the judiciary, to demand companies like Facebook and Twitter to put fake news warnings next to posts or to take them down completely. The bill passed with 72 MPs voting yes, 9 Workers’ Party MPs voting no, and 3 nominated MPs abstaining. Workers’ Party had objected to the bill and wanted the courts – instead of ministers – to be the arbiters to falsehoods. It accused the government of creating a self-serving law that can be abused to silence its critics.

(See a copy of the new law appended at the bottom).

Singapore’s law minister K. Shanmugam said the law is not a political tool for the ruling party to wield power, but about “shaping the kind of society that Singapore should be”. He said the law is designed to deal with online falsehoods, which go viral within minutes, and that there was no way to guarantee that courts could have dealt with every such falsehoods within hours. According to him, the bill narrows the government’s powers, instead of expanding it.

  • Orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at technology companies, Shanmugam stressed.
  • Addressing academics’ concerns that the law will be used to stifle political discourse “because not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists”, he assured that criticism based on facts and not on falsehoods would not come under the law

The law provides for a penalty of 50,000 Singapore dollars or jail for upto 5 years or both, to those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, with knowledge that it can influence the outcome of an election. Although pre-approval from courts is not required under the law, the government’s decisions are subject to judicial review.

Understanding the Fake News Act

What is “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”? It means any coordinated activity carried out using 2 or more online accounts, in order to mislead users of any internet intermediary service as to any matter. This won’t apply if both accounts in question are controlled by the same person, or is a bot.

What’s an internet intermediary? Any service providing access to material from third parties or providing search services, these include social networking services, search engine services, content aggregation services, internet-based messaging services, and video-sharing services.

What’s an online location? It means any website, webpage, chatroom or forum or any other thing hosted on a computer and can be seen, heard via the internet.

What’s the ‘competent authority’? The minister may appoint under Section 6 of the law, a Competent Authority (CA) who will give effect to the instructions of the minister. The CA can be a group of people forming a statutory board or a government officer.

How is ‘public interest’ defined?

While public interest in the bill includes typically covered areas of national security, public health and peace, and harmony between communities, it also includes election outcomes, and a “diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function, or exercise of power by the Government.” Punishment for spreading fake news which is against public interest can amount to a penalty of up to $50,000 or jail term of up to 5 years, or both.

If an inauthentic online account or bot used to spread falsehood, the convicted persons will be penalised with upto $100,000 or imprisonment of up to 10 years or both. An inauthentic online account means an account controlled by a person different than whom the account belongs to. People who create or alter bots to spread of falsehoods will be punishable with a penalty of upto $30,000 or jail of up to 3 years, or both. If such falsehoods harm public interest, the penalty is higher at $60,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 years or both.

Orders against internet companies under the Act

A. Correction and Stop Communication order under Part 3

1. Correction direction: Any minister can issue to the Competent Authority (CA) a correction direction or a stop communication direction (Part 3 direction), if a falsehood is being spread and if the “the Minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the Direction”. A correction notice needs to state that the falsehood is, in fact, a falsehood, or that the material in question contains falsehood. It can also require the issuee to publish the correction notice on a specified website, and further for it to be published in a specified newspaper or other print publication. The correction direction, can also require that issuee to place the correction notice in “the specified proximity” to every copy of the falsehood.

A person who communicated a false statement of fact in Singapore may be issued a Correction Direction even if the person does not know or has no reason to believe that the statement is false.

2. Stop Communication order: A Stop Communication order requires the issuee to stop communication of the falsehoods (and even any statement substantially similar to it) within a specified time. and prevent the falsehood from being available to internet users, it also requires them to remove the falsehood from a website or domain. It also requires them to issue a correction notice to a specified person and may require it to be published in print as well. The CA must publish this notice on a Gazerra immediately. Anyone who fails to comply with Part 3 Direction can be penalised with upto $20,000 or imprisoned for up to a year, or both.

Access blocking order

If a person fails to comply with a Part 3 direction, Singapore’s ministers can direct the IMDA to issue an ‘access blocking order’ to the ISP to block that specific website. If an ISP doesn’t comply with such an order, they’re liable to a penalty of upto $20,00 0 for each day of non-compliance or the total, going up to $500,000. Part 3 orders can be appealed in the high court by any person.

B. Orders under Part 4

1. Targeted Correction Direction: Such a part 4 issued to online intermediaries requires them to communicate to all users about the false news and the website it came from. It may also require the intermediary to issue a correction notice to all users. A disabling direction can require the intermediary to takedown or block access to users from the false news.

2. Disabling order: The government can also order intermediaries to disable accounts which have been spreading false information or coordinated inauthentic behaviour, either indefinitely or for a specified period not exceeding 3 months. The intermediary may be responsible for accounts operating in and outside Singapore. To determine whether the account is misrepresenting which country the user belongs to, whether the account is behaving suspiciously, when the account was created, and any other factor that the Minister considers relevant. A person failing to comply with a part 4 direction is punishable with penalty of $20,000or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

Appealing Part 3 and 4 directions in the Court

Both Part 3 and 4 directions can be appealed in the high courts, the court can dismiss a Part 3 irection is the person did not spread the falsehood, if the material referred to is not a falsehood, or if its not technically possible to comply with the direction. If the person even establishes a prima facie case that its technically impossible to comply with the Part 3 Direction, the HC may set it aside. In case of a Targeted Correction Direction or a Disabling Direction, there are additional scenarios where a Part 4 direction can be dismissed:

  • if the material was not spread in Singapore, or
  • if the intermediary in question was not used to spread the falsehood.
  • Part 4 directions can also be dismissed if its not technically possible to comply with the direction.

Declaring websites

A minister may ‘declare’ a website when it contains 3 or more different statements that are subject or Part 3 and 4 direction, when the statements in question were published/communicated in the last 6 months. A declaration is basically identifying a website as a source that is a source of falsehoods and which has had content under Part 3 or 4 directions. It must contain a URL, when the declaration begins and ends. The CA must publish all declarations in the Gazette and disclose the URL or identifier of the declared website.

Intermediaries can be ordered to disable access to declared websites. Further a person who reaps any financial benefit from operating a declared website can be punished with a jail term or upto 3 years or a fine of upto $40,000 or both.

Intermediaries can be told to:

Digital advertising intermediaries must take reasonable steps to ensure that they don’t facilitate paid content which promotes websites spreading falsehood that have been subject or Part 3 or 4 direction. The intermediary has to create a channel via which the CA can inform it of websites which spread falsehoods.

Account restriction directions: If certain accounts have spread falsehood or carried out coordinated inauthentic behaviour (as determined by the minister), the minister can direct an internet intermediary to block certain accounts on its platform. This order can be indefinite or for up to 3 months.

Code of Practice for intermediaries

The CA may issue codes of practice to certain intermediaries or kinds of intermediaries including the responsibility to:

  • detect, control and safeguard against coordinated inauthentic behaviour and any other misuse of online accounts;
  • give prominence to credible sources of information
  • not give prominence to declared websites or websites against which Part 3 or 4 notices have been issued.
  • Carry out due diligence measures before agreeing to facilitate paid political content, to detect inauthentic coordinated behaviour, and to safeguard against misrepresentation of the identity of any user
  • maintain and make available a record of all paid political content
  • Report any suspicious or knowledge of misuse of its services to the CA
  • setup a channel by which the CA can notify it of a Part 3 or Part 4 declaration
    Keep records regarding compliance with the codes of practice and/or provide them to the CA at a specified frequency
  • The CA can vary or revoke a code of practice

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The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill:

Note: This article has been updated with a copy of the law, and with a definition of competent authority.