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Singapore prepares sweeping law to fight 'online falsehoods'

Key Points
  • The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was put before parliament on Monday, could force websites to run government "correction notices" alongside content it deems false.
  • The law will also let the government issue so-called "take down" orders that require the removal of content posted by social media companies, news organizations or individuals.
  • Singapore is making it easier and faster for companies and individuals to lodge complaints with the courts that can result in content being struck from websites.
Two women using their mobile phones at Raffles Place, the central business district area of Singapore.
Nicky Loh | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Singapore is close to passing a law that could force websites to run government "correction notices" alongside content it deems false, and the new rules are likely to affect how big social media companies like Facebook and Twitter operate in the country.

Under the law, called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, the government will also be able to issue so-called "take down" orders that require the removal of content posted by social media companies, news organizations or individuals.

In most cases, the government will decide when to bring an action against something for being "false." Websites will have the right to request a judicial review of the corrections or take-downs ordered by the government, but only after those orders are issued.

"This legislation deals with false statements of fact," Singapore Minister for Law K. Shanmugam told reporters on Monday morning. "It doesn't deal with opinions. It doesn't deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable."

The bill was put before parliament on Monday evening local time. It could become law in the coming month or two.

Bad actors, Shanmugam continued, "actually put in falsehoods into the marketplace to confuse others to change the terms of the debate. And in fact it undermines free speech. It undermines democracy."

U.S.-based social media companies are increasingly under scrutiny by governments outside the United States, especially in Europe. Singapore's new law would appear to go further than anything on the books in the European Union, however.

On Saturday, Mark Zuckerberg said he wants governments to play a bigger role in regulating the internet. The Facebook CEO said regulations are needed to protect society from harmful content, to ensure the integrity of elections, to protect people's privacy, and to make it possible for people to move their data from service to service.

Non-Singaporean companies

Tech companies from outside Singapore will have to adhere to the legislation if their content affects the public within Singapore, the minister said. "Of course a tech company or anyone can challenge the order, and then courts will have to decide," Shanmugam said, though he pointed out that there will be sanctions for noncompliance.

Sites that run afoul of the law three times in six months can have their "ability to profit" cut off, according to a press release issued by the Singapore Ministry of Law on Monday night local time.

We are ... concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users.
Facebook

In a statement Monday night local time, Facebook said it shares the Singaporean government's "commitment to reduce the spread of deliberate online falsehoods."

"We support regulation that strikes the right balance between reducing harm while protecting people's rights to meaningful speech," the company said. "In fact, the draft legislation already reflects a number of investments we have made to combat false news and disrupt attempts to manipulate civic discourse," including among other things disrupting coordinated false behavior and removing fake accounts.

"We are, however, concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users," the company said.

Facebook is dealing with scrutiny from several governments, within the United States and beyond. The company's troubles began in earnest last year when it was revealed that a U.K.-based political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica was exploiting Facebook's site to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

How it will work

In most instances, Shanmugam said, the law will not call for the outright removal of false information. Instead, it will force sites to post links to "correct facts" alongside those sites' "false" content. Those "correct" links could steer readers to government sites or to third-party institutions or organizations the government considers legitimate.

Our own preference is that, actually, leave the material there. Just have something which says, 'This is inaccurate. For the truth, go to such-and-such a place.' And that way ... people can read whatever they want and make up their own mind.
K. Shanmugam
Singapore Minister for Law

Shanmugam acknowledged that Singapore has had discussions with unnamed tech companies that have expressed a desire to simply remove false information from their web properties, rather than running a government-mandated correction over the problematic content.

"Our own preference is that, actually, leave the material there. Just have something which says, 'This is inaccurate. For the truth, go to such-and-such a place.' And that way, in a sense, people can read whatever they want and make up their own mind," he said.

However, the government will also have the right under the law to issue "take-down" orders in cases it deems serious.

Separately, Singapore is making it easier and faster for companies and individuals to lodge complaints with the courts that can result in content being struck from websites.

Singapore is a small, multi-ethnic country with several prominent religious groups. It is home to a population of roughly 6 million ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians and others. Singapore has prominent Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian populations.

The Singaporean government cited political and ethnic violence in Europe and Asia that has sometimes been fueled by fake "news" reports online. France, Sri Lanka, India and others in recent years have seen turmoil that most observers agree was exacerbated or even sparked by misleading online posts.

Clarification: This report has been updated to give more details on the types of sources the government may use for links to "correct" information.

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