Singapore Readies Anti-Fake News Law, Alarms Civil Rights Groups

The Singapore government has introduced legislation to combat the spread of misinformation online. The proposed law puts responsibility on media and social media platforms, requires online corrections, and threatens to take away profits of repeat offenders.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was introduced by the Ministry of Law, and put to parliament on Monday. Given the government’s solid majority it could become law in a matter of weeks.

The government says that the bill targets falsehoods, not opinions and criticisms, satire or parody. Corrections will be the primary response to a harmful online falsehood that is actively spreading, and that corrections will usually require the facts to be put up alongside the falsehood, so that the facts can travel together with the falsehood.

But critics said that it gives the already all-powerful government huge leeway. “The proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false,” said Jeff Paine, MD of Asia Internet Coalition, in a statement.

The proposed law also provides for enforced takedown of falsehoods that can cause serious harm; disabling of fake accounts that amplify falsehoods; cutting off profits of sites that repeatedly spread falsehoods; criminal sanctions on malicious actors; and setting out binding codes of practice for technology companies. Proposed penalties include fines of $44,000 and jail terms of up to six years.

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Inevitably, for a socially conservative country where the dominant local media is partially state-owned, and where every widely-read website must already have a license and put up a financial surety, the moves are seen as a further example of expanding government control, and an additional restriction on free speech.

“You’re basically giving the autocrats another weapon to restrict speech, and speech is pretty restricted in the region already,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.

One area of particular concern is the restriction on falsehoods that are deemed to be against the public interest. The government’s definition of public interest includes prevention of “a diminution of public confidence” in government, and “incitement of feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will between different groups of persons.”

In past cases the Singapore government has used criminal defamation prosecutions to protect its institutions from criticism. In most countries, defamation is currently considered a civil matter.

“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,” said Paine. He also warned of “significant implications for diverse stakeholders, including industry, media and civil society, in Singapore, the region and internationally.”

The Singapore parliament was also told on Monday that Lady’s Gaga’s song “Judas,” Ariana Grande’s “God is a woman,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Heresy,” and Hozier’s “Take me to the Church” had been included on an “offensive lyrics” list. The list was unveiled by the Home Minister in a separate statement on hate speech.

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